The right to die

Frank Brennan SJ, had a piece republished in ABC Religion this week, titled “The law of death: Reflections on the right to die“.  Unsurprisingly, Brennan is a Catholic theologian afterall, he came down against euthanasia, throwing around some alarmist, but un-cited references, and making appeals to higher powers.

What I find interesting is that the bible doesn’t really have a position on euthanasia, instead has many examples where family kill other family members for minor transgressions, or suggestions that said family members should kill other family members.

For example Deuteronomy 21:18-21 suggests that stubborn children should be brought before the elders and then stoned to death for being… well children.  Deuteronomy 13:6-11 tells you that if your family members attempt to convert you to another religion you should put those family members to death.  Leviticus instructs that adulterers, homosexuals, and men who marry a woman and that woman’s mother, should all be put to death (and in the last example, the woman and her mother also).

Then there are the counter examples as well, one of the ten commandments is that you shall not kill (except when god deems it appropriate apparently), and in Genesis 9:6 the reader is told if you shed human blood, then other humans will kill you, because by killing someone you have killed god as we were made in god’s image.

Confused yet?

In researching this article I came across this lovely gem of a comment from some Christian doctors against euthanasia:

Secular humanism claims that every life has a “quality” attached to it. This means that circumstances, abilities (or disabilities), suffering, or other factors render a life better or worse, because the person has a greater or lesser degree of contentment or happiness. With contentment or happiness as the standard, some lives are deemed to have such low quality that it is reasonable to prefer death. This is the antithesis of the “sanctity of life” ethic, which maintains that every life, created in the image of God, has intrinsic, God-given value that is not reduced by circumstances. Paul teaches us: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil.4:12). In a world that confuses the right to pursue happiness with a non-existent right to attain happiness, the Christian perspective stands out in stark contrast.

God’s dominion includes all of life, which means that suffering is a part of God’s providence. Therefore, suffering that cannot be relieved by modern medical means is to be accepted as from the hand of a loving God who knows what He is doing, even when we do not understand.

The bible, in the end, is contradictory, there is a story in Samuel where King Saul begs a stranger to kill him for he is dying.  The stranger complies and then takes the crown and arm band to David.  The stranger is killed, not for his mercy, but for killing the anointed of god.  And then there is the golden rule, the “love one another as I have loved you” and/or “do unto others as you’d have them do to you”. Judges (9:52-55) mentions a man who is fatally wounded by a woman, who asks his servant to kill him so that it wouldn’t be said that he was killed by a woman.

In the end, almost all religions condemn euthanasia.  To die before your time, or before the time chosen by the preferred deity of choice, is to either interrupt karma and reincarnation, or to defy your deity.  These things are seen as bad, but personally, without having a preferred deity at hand, I’d much rather have the option to decide that at a certain point I’d rather die than continue living, than not.

I’m not religious, and I’m rather tired of religions trying to make their beliefs about morality apply to my own life.  Can euthanasia be misued and vulnerable people be exploited?  Most likely.  Is it currently happening?  It would appear not.  Those who say it is, never provide the detail of the studies that they refer to  Euthanasia appears to be a small percentage of the overall number of deaths in the areas in which it is legal.  In the Netherlands only 0.02% (9 cases in 2010) of euthanasia deaths were referred to the public prosecutor for further investigation.  Any un-consented death is a serious thing, but as I do not have the end result of the investigations, I really don’t know how many of those 0.02% deaths were criminal.

Given that the Netherlands clearly has mechanisms in place for ensuring that euthanasia is only provided to those that qualify, and that the number of cases warranting investigation are so very low, can we say that the the vulnerable are being exploited or targeted and that the slippery slope that so many people are afraid of has been triggered?  If the Netherlands can put in strong protections to prevent death without consent, surely everyone else can too.  The Netherlands have been doing this since 2002, so there is more than enough time to look at the lessons learnt.

I don’t want to watch people suffer in the late stages of terminal illnesses.  I don’t want to read stories about people who are suffering and in palliative care who just want the pain and side-effects of their pain medication to end.  I do not understand why religious people aren’t compassionate to those who are suffering, cannot see that the logical end-result of that compassion is to attempt to end the suffering – not to make them wait for the inevitable and painful end of their life.

Surely any all-loving, merciful and compassionate god would want their subjects to be safe, happy, and living a pain-free life.  The fact that there is so much suffering and pain in the world is one of the many reasons I stopped believing in such a god.  But if you believe in one, how do you reconcile the existence of such a god, and the suffering that exists?  How can you reconcile the instructions that all life is sacred (though some more sacred than other), and yet prolong people’s pain and suffering from terminal disease?

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