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What Does the Bible Say About Euthanasia?

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by Nigel Cameron


Euthanasia is any act or omission, in the context of sickness or disability, that intentionally causes death. As such, it has become a topic of congtemporary debate. But it is nothing new. The killing and abandonment of the sick and elderly have been common practices in cultures around the globe, and one of the most powerful impacts of the gospel has been to defend the defenseless and to devalue those without economic benefit to society.


In the Greco-Roman world of the early church, euthanasia was common and widely approved. The powerful pagan protest against physicians who had taken the Hippocratic oath, repudiating euthanasia and assisted suicide, came in a context in which euthanasia could be an appealing option in the face of chronic disease or uncontrollable pain. What is remarkable about the resurgence of interest in this primitive approx to sickness and suffering in our own day is that we now have far greater medical and other resources with which to cope with these challenges. It is perhaps the surest indicator that our understanding of human nature is being reinvented as the culture turns its back on its Judeo-Christian roots.


The starting point for a biblical understanding of human nature is the idea that human beings are made in the image of God. It is clear from Genesis 1:26-27 that this applies to all members of the human species. Homo sapiens is distinguished from other "kinds" by bearing the likeness of our Maker. The image Dei (image of God) is what makes us the beings we are, and it is in place wherever there are members of our species. This godly image plainly applies to those who are sick and disabled as well as those in the flower of human giftedness. Those with severe mental impairments, including the so-called persistent vegetative state., remain full members of the human species and therefore bear God's image.


A definition of euthanasia that focuses on the intent to cause death is important, and in principle it distinguishes euthanasia from health care decisions affecting terminal patients when there is no intent to end life. The term "physician-assisted suicide" has been coined to promote voluntary euthanasia does entail a suicidal motive, and suicide is a sad but immoral case of homicide-- the homicide of the self. But euthanasia always involves a homicide on the part of the physician, whether it comes through the prescription of lethal drugs or another method. And if it is legal, it involves a community policy decision which states that such lives are not worth living.


A distinction is often made between "active" and passive" euthanasia, but this distinction can be misleading. If the intent is to bring about death, the moral accounting is the same. A more useful distinction lies among voluntary, involuntary, and nonvoluntary euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia is the public policy goal of some activist and intellectuals who deny that they favor involuntary killing. Yet there are problems in defining adequate consent, in the case of seriously ill. For example, even some who favor voluntary euthanasia would consider Dr. Jack Kervorkian a serial killer, since even though he secured "consents," he preyed on the fears of lonely people. Moreover, there is the problem of "nonvoluntary" killing--the euthanasia of those who are not competent, such as Alzheimer's patients or infants, who constitute some of the prime candidates for an induced death.


The biblical doctrine of the sanctity of life of those in God's image offers a fundamental protection for patients, aging relatives, the handicapped, and the poor by ruling out he option of acting to bring about death. Job-- the OT's great example of suffering faithfulness-- was challenged by his wife to take the euthanasia option: "Curse God and die!" (Jb 2:9). But he maintained his integrity and proclaimed in response, "Should we accept only good from God and not adveristy?" (2:10).

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