Euthanasia and God’s Law
If you were suffering from an incurable disease, what would you wish to have done?
“VET Sought in Mercy Killing.” So screamed front-page headlines of New York City afternoon newspapers on November 12, 1960. A certain war veteran, himself a paraplegic, that is, a person without the use of his lower limbs, had shot his wife in the back of the head, killing her instantly. Why? Because she apparently was the hopeless victim of multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system. The police sent out a twelve-state alarm for the veteran who, though paralyzed in his lower limbs, had been able to flee by means of his specially constructed automobile.
Incidents such as this one bring up the controversial subject of “mercy killing” or euthanasia. The advocates of euthanasia argue that here is another proof that a law legalizing euthanasia should be placed on the statute books. Others strongly oppose, arguing that there simply are no exceptions to God’s law: “You shall not kill,” and that euthanasia is murder. What does the Bible say? Are there situations in which euthanasia is justifiable?—Ex. 20:13, RS.
The word “euthanasia” comes from two Greek roots, eu, meaning “well,” and thanatos, meaning “death.” Euthanasia is therefore a death that is supposed to be a good one in that it brings to an end a life of pain. There are various ways of administering euthanasia, the above example being an extreme one. Doctors at times use a lethal dose of narcotics and then again may merely stop the treatment upon which the life of the patient depends.
Those who advocate euthanasia fall into three general classes. The euthanasia societies advocate only voluntary euthanasia, for those over twenty-one years of age who are suffering great pain from an incurable disease. To prevent abuse, the patient and his physician would be required to make a written application for euthanasia, and a court-appointed commission, of two other physicians and a lawyer, would have to investigate and make a favorable report. At any stage of the procedure the patient would be permitted to change his mind.
Then there are those who favor euthanasia only for those early in life who are monstrosities or mental defectives, and who would be doomed to live useless lives. A form of this kind of euthanasia is practiced now in that doctors will not respirate at birth greatly deformed infants.
And thirdly, there are the extremists who would apply euthanasia also to the incurably insane, the paralytic and the helplessly crippled, all of whom would be a burden to the community as well as to themselves. Hitler and his Nazis advocated this form of euthanasia. Shortly after they came into power they enacted legislation authorizing such euthanasia; their goal being the extinction of 1,380,000 persons who were useless to the state. Still the Nazi government did not dare put these laws into effect until after the war began in 1939. In doing so all those that were involved, the police, the judiciary and the medical profession, were sworn to secrecy. But the facts began to leak out and they created so much apprehension and indignation that, ruthless as the Nazis were, they deemed it inadvisable to continue with the project. By then, however, some 200,000 “useless eaters,” as the Nazis called them, had been done away with.
OPPOSITION TO LEGALIZED EUTHANASIA
Although euthanasia was advocated as far back as in the time of ancient Greece, to date no nation has legalized voluntary euthanasia. Switzerland comes the closest to doing so. Under certain conditions it permits a physician to provide his patient with a lethal potion, which, however, the patient himself must take. Many Protestant leaders, as well as educators and the medical profession, by and large, especially in the United States and Great Britain, favor voluntary euthanasia.
In the forefront of the opposition to legalizing voluntary euthanasia is the Roman Catholic Church. The Morality of Mercy Killing, by priest J. V. Sullivan, presents the church’s view. It argues that to justify “mercy killings” would permit an entering wedge against God’s law, “You shall not kill,” and which might gradually be widened. But what greater entering wedge against God’s law forbidding the taking of human life could there be than modern warfare? Yet the religious organization that so opposes legalized voluntary euthanasia invariably supports war. The claim is also made that by suffering one can “win favors for the souls in purgatory, perhaps even relieve them from suffering.” But that is an argument that would appeal only to Catholics who believe there is such a place as purgatory. It counts for nothing with those who accept the plain Scriptural teaching that, “as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.”—Eccl. 9:5.
Actually, the position of the Roman Catholic Church is one of splitting hairs. Thus F. J. Connell, in Morals in Politics and Professions, states: “No doctor may ever deliberately and directly accelerate death in the case of a dying person . . . It would be murder to give him a drug with the direct intention of hastening his passage from this world.” Yet Pope Pius XII is quoted as saying: “The removal of pain and consciousness by means of drugs, when medical reasons suggest it, is permitted by religion and morality to both doctor and patient even if the use of drugs will shorten life.”
THE SCRIPTURAL VIEW
Not all forms of euthanasia run counter to Bible principles; however, the basic principle governing modern euthanasia societies does. They say: “When suffering of a living creature cannot be alleviated it is more ethical to end its life by killing it mercifully than it is to stand aloof.”
Perhaps the only Scriptural reference to anything akin to euthanasia, and which certainly reveals God’s will on the matter, is in connection with King Saul’s death. When he was severely wounded he asked his armor-bearer to kill him lest he fall into the hands of the Philistines and suffer abuse. But his armor-bearer refused to do so. The Amalekite who sought David’s favor by claiming to have complied with King Saul’s request and to have ended Saul’s misery was slain at David’s command. Actually, unfaithful King Saul applied euthanasia to himself, committing suicide so as not to suffer further at the hands of the Philistines.—1 Sam. 31:3, 4; 2 Sam. 1:2-16.
Yes, God’s Word plainly tells that human life is sacred and that he who takes a human life must forfeit his own: “Anyone shedding a man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed, for in God’s image he made man.” This law was repeatedly stated to the nation of Israel by Moses and others of the prophets, as well as to the followers of Jesus Christ by himself and his apostles.—Gen. 9:6; Ex. 20:13; Num. 35:30-32; Matt. 19:18; 1 John 3:15.
But does not God’s Word show that Jehovah is merciful and compassionate, and does he not require the same qualities in us? All very true, yet he has seen fit to let suffering continue for some six thousand years now. Not only that, but he, the Almighty and the Most High, has suffered more than anyone else during all this time. His principle is that his laws come ahead of suffering, even as in blood transfusion God’s law takes precedence over the life of a creature. Suffering in itself is not life’s greatest evil and may not be used as an excuse for breaking God’s law regarding the sanctity of life.
In particular does the vindication of God’s name take precedence over suffering. If faithfully endured, suffering contributes to the vindication of Jehovah’s name, proving that men will remain true to God in spite of what they must endure. Consider Job. He suffered greatly from a very loathsome disease as well as from many misfortunes. And of Jesus we read that “he learned obedience from the things he suffered.”—Job 2:4-10; Heb. 5:8.
Appreciating these facts helps one to endure suffering. Then, too, Christians have the comfort of God’s Word, the sustaining power of his spirit and the precious privilege of prayer. Nor can it be denied that one of the biggest factors in suffering is one’s mental attitude toward it. Rebellion may make the suffering unbearable, whereas submissiveness may enable one to rejoice in it, as did the apostles at being permitted to suffer for Christ’s sake.—Acts 5:40, 41.
There are also other, though lesser, considerations. At times a condition that seems hopeless takes a turn for the better for apparently no reason whatever. And, too, who knows what diseases that are considered incurable today may become curable tomorrow? Certainly more is constantly being done to relieve suffering.
All this, however, does not mean that where a person is suffering greatly from a disease and death is only a matter of time the physician must continue to take extraordinary, complicated, distressing and costly measures to keep the patient alive. There is a great difference between extending the life of a patient and stretching out the dying process. In such cases it would not be violating God’s law regarding the sanctity of life to mercifully let the dying process take its due course. The medical profession generally acts in harmony with this principle.
So we can see that in view of God’s law regarding the sanctity of life and Scriptural precedent, life may not be taken or surrendered simply because of suffering, as recommended by many well-meaning persons. But at the same time, God’s law does not require that extreme measures be taken that would merely make the ebbing away of life more drawn out and costly. Thus both God’s just principles and his loving mercy are acknowledged; his law regarding the sanctity of life is upheld, and yet compassion is shown.
Instruct me, O Jehovah, in the way of your regulations, that I may observe it down to the last.—Psalm 119:33.