Recently one mother, Frances Inglis, has been jailed for life for murdering a son who was in a persistent vegetative state, and another mother, Kay Gilderdale was acquitted of the attempted murder of her daughter, whose suicide she assisted. What should we do about euthanasia done to relieve suffering? When the patient brings about his or her own death with the assistance of a physician, the term assisted suicide is often used instead.
Passive euthanasia entails the withholding of common treatments, such as antibiotics, necessary for the continuance of life. It can be misleading to use the term ‘euthanasia’ for the withholding of life-sustaining treatment or for the use of pain-relieving drugs which may also shorten life, because these may be both life choices if one seeks to enable a person to live as fully as possible even while dying. But active euthanasia is to choose death as an end, and that is a very different thing. It entails the use of lethal substances or forces to kill and is the most controversial means.
Some religious people condemn euthanasia as wrong. However, many reach no final conclusion although seeing several relevant spiritual perspectives.
Should the individual choice of euthanasia be respected?
We each have a human faculty of freedom and rationality. We expect people to exercise these in applying their values to the circumstances they find themselves in. Defending the innocent is justified when we risk our life taking responsibility for others safety. And so it is argued perhaps we should likewise take responsibility for ending our own suffering.
But having a responsibility to choose between what is good and bad doesn’t make our wrong choices right. We may have the freedom to think as we please, but this does not mean we should do so if our desires are against ethics and spiritual values.
Swedenborg pointed out that our rational good sense is reduced when we are ill and in pain. We may think we are making our own free choices but actually these may be subtly influenced by unconscious factors. Some terminally ill people, some deeply depressed, do believe that their choice of death is for the good of others. ‘They will be better off without me; I am such a burden to them.’ There may be many reasons behind such statements. They are most often the words of someone with misjudged feelings of low self-worth.
It might be asked did not Captain Oates ‘choose death’ when he walked from Scott’s tent into the Antarctic blizzard. Yes, in a sense he did, but not as an end. He chose to act in the way he did knowing that it involved death, and accepting his death as a means when there was no alternative – to help the safety of his fellow human beings. ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). The distinction here is between intention and foresight. Oates foresaw his death: death was not his choice.
Should one be allowed euthanasia to escape intolerable pain and loss of independence?
We can imagine a rare situation of extreme suffering, such as the soldier in the burning gun turret who cannot be rescued, and whose agonizing death is unavoidable, for whom it may be judged that a merciful bullet is a gesture of care.
Those who are aware of their ethical responsibilities may be sympathetic to the idea that to prolong life uselessly is to undermine the independent moral status of a person. This is where it seems that personal qualities of rationality, freedom, self-possession and responsibility have become inactive and not given any dignity.
On the other hand when rationality has been taken away by pain or brain damage, the patient’s competence to volunteer their informed consent for euthanasia can be difficult to determine or even define. Mercy killing without the patient’s volunteering for this is even more controversial a step. The public’s trust in doctors’ and nurses’ duty to preserve life would be undermined if they were allowed to assist in mercy killing.
It goes against all human love to allow unnecessary suffering and this is an important factor for those who believe in Love and Light. On the other hand only such a Light can know what is unnecessary suffering. Cannot we trust that intolerable pain will not be allowed by nature? Does it not provide the unconsciousness of concussion rather than our experience of something beyond which we can bear?
Is there any point in keeping someone alive past the point he or she can contribute to society?
For many being useful is the purpose of their lives. But how can one be sure anyone is no longer serving a useful role? For all we know in any given situation, a need for nursing care is a stimulus for others to learn better how to act in a selfless way and for the sufferer to see the affection and concern of close family members as they do what they can to help.
Euthanasia implies a right to die
One consideration for religious people is they did not create their life — it is from God their Creator. The life within them is not theirs to own and dispose of as they wish. It is God’s life in them. But more than a gift, life is a trust. Their life is on trust and they see themselves as stewards of this gift. To choose death, for the person of faith, therefore, is a denial that God is trusting that person with life. If life is a gift then we have no right to a life and so have no right to a death.
The question of euthanasia raises many spiritual issues.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems