Euthanasia

Posted on September 14, 2011 at 11:18 am,

This is the next in the series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today we’re looking at the second issue in the chapter on The Protection of Life, Euthanasia. On Friday, we’ll be looking at capital punishment and on Monday, we’ll finish up by looking at the issue of gun control.

Euthanasia, frequently often called “mercy killing” and sometimes “assisted suicide” is the killing of somebody who terminally ill, has an incurable condition that causes severe pain or loss of mental facility, or is just very old. It is usually carried out in order to spare the person, and those who know them, the pain of suffering through their condition. Grudem restricts his definition to the old and terminally ill, presumably in order to make a simple definition. From a UK perspective, this restriction seems somewhat odd, as the euthanasia debate is focused on the groups that Grudem doesn’t mention. The most prominent British advocate of euthanasia is Sir Terry Pratchett – who is neither elderly nor terminally ill, but instead has Alzheimer’s disease.

Grudem also doesn’t directly address the question of whether it is right (or should be legal) to give somebody considering euthanasia for themselves the tools to commit suicide easily and relatively painlessly. Many pro-euthanasia campaigners would be quite happy with that as an option, and it has been argued that such an approach might actually help these people to keep the will to live that much longer.

The Tone

Something I didn’t mention in Monday’s look at abortion (because that post was already quite long) is that Grudem’s takes a purely academic view of the subject. That’s not necessarily a problem – this is a book that’s trying to cover a vast number of political issues in a limited page count. But I can’t help wondering how somebody who might be considering euthanasia (or, for that matter, an abortion) would take the bluntness of Grudem’s tone on these issues.

The apparent lack of compassion by many on the pro-life side on these issues is something that makes it much more difficult not only to win people over, but has also helped made the debates (particularly on abortion) far more about attacking the other side than about making sure that we have the right laws in place.

What does the Bible say?

Grudem cites two Bible passages. One is the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13), which he renders “you shall not murder” (other translations have “you shall not kill”). He points out that, in the Hebrew, the word covers pre-meditated murder and accidentally killing another human being (and, incidentally, never animals). The second is 2 Samuel 1:1-16, which tells the story of how a man boasted of killing the mortally wounded King Saul (at Saul’s request) to David (who would become the next king), but was executed for his crime, rather than let off for it.

Grudem deals with several arguments that Saul’s death doesn’t mean that euthanasia is murder. Firstly, he deals with the claim that the man’s story may have been made up – saying that even if it was, he was found guilty of the crime. Secondly, because David refers to Saul as “the LORD’s anointed”, some say that the fact that Saul was king makes a difference. Grudem rejects this idea on the basis that murder is wrong because it is the taking of another human life, and the rank of the victim is irrelevant. Thirdly, there’s the claim that the man’s crime was actually rebellion against the king. But this goes directly against what is said in the text.

Killing and letting die

Having said that, Grudem makes a distinction between actively killing somebody and passively allowing them to die, which might offer a loophole to anybody looking for one. He thinks that we should intervene when there is reasonable hope of recovery and we are able to help. But, when there is no reasonable human hope of recovery, and it is the person’s wish to die, and/or we are unable to help then it may be right to allow the person to die. In such cases, he recommends making use of modern painkillers to ease the pain.

Grudem doesn’t really have any Bible passages to back up the distinction he makes, other than the generic principle of love your neighbour (Matthew 22:39), and a few examples of several Bible characters accepting their death when it comes. So, whilst the case for this distinction looks fairly sound, it isn’t really Biblical.

The secular case

Grudem argues that the near-universal belief that murder is wrong must, necessarily, mean that murder is wrong even if the victim is suffering. He also cites the “slippery slope” argument that widespread euthanasia will mean that there will be pressure put on people to take that way out, moving from a social belief in “the right to die” to one in “the obligation to die”. When he says this, he seems to be talking more about generic peer pressure than about individuals putting pressure on other people. In support of this, he cites an article by an anti-Euthanasia campaigner which claims that, in the Netherlands – where euthanasia is legal – around 4% of deaths are caused by involuntary euthanasia. Finally, Grudem points out that some people recover from the kinds of conditions that may lead to euthanasia, citing one example of a man in a coma.

Grudem says that people who think that treating euthanasia as murder is a violation of human freedom, or that it is the best way to alleviate pain and frustration are simply wrong. For him, taking a life is still taking a life, and we should overcome pain and frustration in more conventional ways. He also brings up financial arguments for euthanasia – that the cost of keeping some of these people alive is too great, saying that this is simply immoral. (I really hope that this is a strawman argument). This argument is one that we’ll almost certainly come back to when we get to the issue of healthcare.

So what should be done?

As you’ve already gathered, Grudem thinks that euthanasia should be treated as murder. He also stresses that this is a very important issue. He worries that legal acceptance of euthanasia would mean that the elderly will be increasingly thought of as burdens to care for, rather than a valuable part of society, and notes that most of us will become those elderly who could become victims of euthanasia.

Overall, I can’t really find any grounds to disagree with Grudem that euthanasia is murder, but that there may be cases where we simply have to let people die. However, I can’t help wondering whether there are ways to reach an accommodation between the two sides over many cases. I’ve seen the proposal made that doctors could give those with degenerative conditions the means to kill themselves, and can’t help wondering whether this would be a solution that could be acceptable to most people on both sides (especially those on the pro-life side of this debate who are also pro-gun).

This idea is something that I’ve only just started thinking about as a possibility – I guess I’ve seen a possible grey area, and want to work out how it fits into the overall debate. Would such a policy still be effectively condoning murder? Would it satisfy most right-to-die campaigners? Would it be acceptable to any pro-life campaigners? Would it be practical to implement? Is there some other reason that it might be a good or a bad idea? Answers on a postcard in a comment, please.

One Trackback

  1. By Healthcare: Right or luxury? – Green Christian on March 23, 2012 at 11:20 am

    […] have to let them die (the complete opposite of what Grudem established when covering the topic of Euthanasia) or somebody has to provide healthcare for […]

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