Enthusiasm for euthanasia is growing in Western societies. Enthusiasts argue: “People should have the choice to end their life if the quality of their life falls below some standard.”1 And again: “If people were dogs, we’d put them out of their misery.” According to such arguments, we have a right to euthanasia because we are the sovereigns of death and the equals of animals. But are we? Before answering these and other pro-euthanasia arguments, it is worth clarifying the definition of euthanasia itself.
The meaning of euthanasia
The word euthanasia comes from two Greek words—eu, meaning, “good, well, easy”; and thanatos, meaning, “death”. So euthanasia, which is sometimes called “mercy killing”, means the administration of a good and easy death. It is the deliberate act of killing someone in order to end suffering. It entails consciously causing a person’s death out of supposed compassion for that person. Voluntary euthanasia involves killing with the consent of the victim, while involuntary euthanasia involves killing without the victim’s request or consent. Helping someone to kill himself (assisted suicide) is one aspect of voluntary euthanasia.
It is worth clarifying, however, that euthanasia has little to do with refusing futile or extreme medical treatment. The man who rejects a heart transplant or declines a second course of chemotherapy is not committing suicide, but rather is accepting the inevitability of his own death. The doctor who withholds or withdraws undue treatment at the request of a terminally ill patient is not killing his patient, but rather is refusing to prolong his patient’s life at any cost.
Risks associated with palliative care are also quite unrelated to euthanasia. In rare instances, pain inhibiting drugs may inadvertently hasten the death of a patient. This is not euthanasia, for the aim in using the drugs is not to induce death but to alleviate suffering. Euthanasia always involves an intention to kill.
The right to refuse futile treatment and the right to receive adequate pain relief have no necessary connection with euthanasia. Properly understood, euthanasia involves (regardless of method) a deliberate and determined act to end a patient’s life—nothing more and nothing less. The motive may be “mercy”, but the objective is always “killing”.
According its advocates, euthanasia is purely a personal affair. People should be free to choose to end their lives because such a choice is entirely individual and private.
On reflection, however, it is evident that euthanasia is not merely a personal matter. It is more than personal if it requires society to change its attitude to the sanctity of human life. It is more than personal if it encourages the community to view killing as a form of compassion and an alternative to care. It is more than personal if it requires governments to revise laws to allow certain types of homicide and suicide. It is more than personal if it requires doctors to assist in the killing. It is more than personal if it desensitises medical staff to the preciousness of human life. It is more than personal if it robs friends and relatives of extra time with a loved one. It is more than personal if it weakens a family’s will to make sacrifices to care for one of its members. It is more than personal if it creates an atmosphere in which other weak or unwanted people feel pressured to choose to die.
The Problem of confinement
Once the principle of mercy killing is accepted in law, it cannot be confined to those who give their consent. Voluntary and involuntary euthanasia go hand in hand. According to the Dutch government’s Remmelink Report, for example, of the thousands of people who have their lives deliberately shortened or terminated by medical staff in Holland each year, over half are non-voluntary. “In the practice of euthanasia in the Netherlands,” says Dr John Flemming, Director of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, “more are killed without their knowledge and consent than with their knowledge and consent.”2
Dr Karel Gunning, a medical practitioner in Rotterdam, Holland, cites an instance of involuntary euthanasia: “A friend of mine, an intern, was asked to see a lady with lung cancer, being very short of breath and having at most a fortnight to live. After the examination he asked the patient to come to the hospital for a few days. She refused, being afraid to be euthanised there. ‘But I myself am on duty this weekend. Come on Saturday morning and I’ll admit and help you.’ So the lady came. On Sunday night she breathed normally and felt far better. The doctor went home and, being off duty on Monday morning, came back Monday afternoon. Then the patient was dead. The doctor’s colleague had said: ‘What is the sense of having that woman here. It makes no difference whether she dies today or after two weeks. We need that bed for another case.’ So the lady was euthanised against her explicit wish.”3
In addition to logic, research indicates that Australia would soon follow the Dutch example if voluntary euthanasia were legalised. A Flinders University survey of doctors and nurses in South Australia, for example, revealed that nineteen percent of doctors and nurses had taken active steps to bring about the death of a patient, despite the fact that euthanasia is illegal in that state. Forty-nine percent of these euthanasia-practising doctors said that they had never received a request from a patient to take such active steps.4If this happens when euthanasia of any sort is illegal, it is certain to happen all the more if euthanasia of some sort is legal.
Voluntary euthanasia inevitably gives rise to involuntary euthanasia. This in turn gives rise to distrust in doctors. Where euthanasia is sanctioned, the elderly and the seriously ill cannot be confident that medical staff will treat them rather than terminate them. To legalise euthanasia is to generate anxiety and distrust in the hearts of people at a time when they most need comfort and assurance.
Doctors are not the only danger when it comes to the practice of involuntary euthanasia. Relatives can be a threat, too. They can pressure a seriously ill person to “choose” euthanasia. This is already happening in Holland, where “In some cases, a patient’s ‘right to die’ has subtly become a duty to die.” Amsterdam psychiatrist Frank Koerselman observes, “I frequently see people pressured towards euthanasia by exhausted and impatient relatives.” He cites an example of “a woman whose relatives gathered in Amsterdam for her planned euthanasia. One relative came from overseas. When the patient expressed last-minute doubts, the family said, ‘You can’t have her come all this way for nothing.’ Instead of ensuring that the patient’s true wishes were observed, the doctor carried out the euthanasia.”5
Once it is socially acceptable and legally permissible, euthanasia cannot be confined to those who choose it. Nor can it be confined to those who are dying from incurable ailments. The practice soon widens from the terminally ill to the chronically ill and from the physically diseased to the mentally distressed. Again, in Holland, for example, euthanasia is applied to old people who “suffer” from loneliness. This fact was highlighted at a Death, Dying and Euthanasia Conference at the University of Queensland, where one conference speaker casually described a conversation with a Dutch doctor at a cocktail party in Holland.6
Endeavouring to justify her country’s widespread practice of euthanasia through lethal injections, the Dutch doctor cited the case of a highly cultured woman in her eighties who “got lonelier and lonelier and lonelier” after her husband’s death. “We used to visit her every week,” the doctor said. “And every week she’d say to us, ‘Please give me a lethal injection.’ So after about three months we did.”
The doctor concluded, “It was a terrible situation. She had nothing to live for. She had no family. Her friends had all died. Her husband who had been the centre of her life in every way was gone.”
Interestingly, the conference speaker responded, “Did you think about buying her a cat?” To which the doctor replied seriously, “What a good idea!”
This sad, true story touches the heart of euthanasia: It requires no effort on the part of those who administer it. It was easier to end the woman’s life than to end her loneliness. But with a little imagination (buy her a cat) and self-sacrifice (visit her more often), her loneliness could have been minimised and her life preserved.
For a selfish society, euthanasia is an easy solution—and that is what makes it such a horror.
Advocates of euthanasia claim for themselves the noblest of motives—namely, compassion for those who are suffering. All they want, they say, is to receive or to administer a quick and painless death as a means to end suffering. No doubt this is a genuine motive for many.
However, the motives behind mercy killing are not always so noble. Some are very ugly indeed. One such motive is selfishness, as Dr Karel Gunning reveals in the following anecdote.
Commenting on how much morphine is needed to kill a patient, a Dutch colleague said to Dr Gunning, “I remember a case of an old man, who might die any day. Then this son came to see me and said: ‘Doctor, my wife and I have booked a holiday, which we can’t cancel. We don’t want to come back for father’s funeral, so please arrange that the burial is over before we leave.’” Obligingly, the doctor went along one morning and gave the old man a huge dose of morphine. Returning in the evening to pronounce the old man’s death, the doctor was surprised to find him “sitting happily on the edge of his bed, having had an excellent day without pain.” Dr Gunning concluded: “This colleague told the story as if it was the most normal thing to do, complying with the family’s desire to have father buried before the holiday started.”7
We should not blindly trust supporters of euthanasia just because they speak of “dignity” and “compassion”. People often try to conceal their selfishness by professing a concern for others. Judas did this. When Mary of Bethany anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume, he grumbled, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5)8On the face of it, this seems to be a reasonable sentiment. Granted, Judas may have been a little insensitive towards Jesus on this occasion, but his motive was noble. He was concerned for the poor. Or was he? The apostle John discloses that Judas spoke in these pious terms not because he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and used to steal the money entrusted to him by Jesus and the other disciples (v.6). Advocates of euthanasia do not always mean what they say when they speak of respect for human dignity and compassion for the suffering. Their motives are often suspect.
The Lord Jesus taught his disciples to pray to the Father, “lead us not into temptation—do not put us to the test” (Matthew 6:13). Why is this? In part it is because we are morally weak and liable to succumb to temptation. Laws that permit euthanasia put people to the test. They tempt people to act selfishly. They open the possibility for relatives to hasten death to avoid inconvenience. They open the possibility for children to hasten death to gain their inheritance. They open the possibility for doctors to hasten death to free up hospital beds. They open the possibility for governments to hasten death to avoid the costs of medical care. In short, laws permitting euthanasia open possibilities that should not be opened. In doing so, they lead us into temptation.
Treating humans like animals
Just as noble talk can conceal base motives, so a clever question can confuse sound sentiments. One such question often posed by the advocates of euthanasia is: “We put animals out of their misery, so why not humans?” This question insinuates that the opponents of euthanasia are callous and uncaring. It implies that they are prepared to treat animals better than humans. It cleverly links mercy with death and misery with life, so that to argue for life is to argue for misery.
From a Christian point of view, however, the answer to this question is simple: We don’t put humans out of their misery as we do animals because humans are not animals.
While human beings are similar to animals on a biological level, they are utterly dissimilar on a spiritual level. Unlike animals, humans posses conscience, imagination, reason, personality, a longing for purpose, and an impulse to worship. These are spiritual qualities that lift us from the animal kingdom into a kingdom all our own.
The extraordinary difference between humans and animals arises from the fact that humans bear the image of God. It is the spiritual likeness of God within us that makes us distinct and gives us our value.
All creatures are precious in God’s sight. This is only to be expected, given that God made them all. But human beings are more precious to God than other creatures. This, too, is only to be expected, given that God made us like himself.
“Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!” Jesus exclaimed on one occasion (Matthew 12:12). In saying this, he was not so much inviting a comparison as affirming an absolute: A human’s life is valuable—much more valuable, in fact, than an animal’s. Just how much more is unanswerable because it is immeasurable.
Yet, in a sense, a measure of a person’s worth can be found in the Bible. That measure arises from two things.
The first is the Lord Jesus Christ himself. He is the measure of the value of every human life. He set aside his divine glory to come to earth from heaven to die for us. He did this to make amends to God the Father for our sins, so that all who trust in him may be forgiven and renewed forever. When contemplating the worth of human life, the implications of Christ’s sacrifice are truly staggering. If God’s Son laid down his life for us, then in some mysterious, thrilling, humbling way, the value of our lives is linked with the value of his life!
The second measure of the value of human life lies in the love of God. The astonishing message of the Bible is that God loves us. His love is evident from the fact that he sustains and blesses us. But the pre-eminent proof of his love is found in his willingness to sacrifice his Son to save us. Indeed, the Bible declares that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8; NIV). The cross is the demonstration of God’s love; and his love is the estimation of our worth.
In short, by two immeasurable things—the life of Christ and the love of God—scripture provides a measure of the preciousness of human life. We simply cannot put a human out of his misery as we would a horse because all humans bear the image of God. This image is sacred, and must be respected and protected, as the life of Christ and the love of God confirm.
So to the suffering person who says, “If I was a dog, you’d shoot me,” we should respond: “Yes, but you’re not a dog. You’re a human being, which makes you vastly more valuable. So rather than shoot you, we’ll soothe you. Rather than end your life, we’ll end your pain. We’ll do all we can to heal you; and where that’s not possible, we’ll do all we can to comfort you; but we’ll do nothing at all to kill you.”
Death is not the end
Those who argue that humans should be put out of their misery like animals fail to appreciate that humans are superior to animals in both nature and worth. They also fail to appreciate that misery does not necessarily end at death.
The Bible teaches that human beings are eternal beings. Although death marks the end of this life, it also marks the start of the next life. It is the doorway into eternity.
However, all people will not spend eternity in the same place. Some will go to heaven, while others will go to hell. Jesus taught that on the Day of Judgment he will separate the faithful from the unfaithful. To the faithful he will say, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you”. To the unfaithful he will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. Hence, the unrighteous “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:34, 41, 46).
People who die without having their sins forgiven are not relieved of their suffering. On the contrary, they experience even greater suffering. They enter into a place of torment where, Jesus says, they will forever “weep and gnash their teeth” (Matthew 8:12).
To hasten the death of someone in the hope of putting him out of his misery may well be a tragic mistake. For death is not the end of suffering—unless the sufferer is a Christian.
Only those whose sins are forgiven through faith in Jesus will enjoy happiness and well-being in eternity. This is a compelling reason to prolong, not shorten, life. For while a person is alive, there is yet hope that he will repent and believe and be saved.
The wonderful story of the penitent thief (Luke 23:39-43) illustrates the danger of shortening an unbeliever’s life even by a few hours. This man was crucified with the Lord Jesus; and in the course of his agonising death, he asked Jesus for salvation. But imagine how different things would have been for him if some compassionate soul had offered him euthanasia before his crucifixion. “Look,” this well-meaning person might have said, “the situation is hopeless. The Romans are going to crucify you tomorrow for sure. They are going to hammer nails through your hands and feet and hoist you up on a cross. You will probably hang there for one or two days before you die. The pain will be unbearable. But there’s no need to suffer like that because I’ve smuggled a drug past the guards. If you just drink it, then you’ll escape the agony, not to mention the indignity, of crucifixion. Come on, drink up! Under the circumstances, it’s better to die today than tomorrow.” On the surface, this well-intentioned person would have offered a merciful solution to the thief’s predicament. But in reality, he would have caused the thief eternal misery. For it was only because of his suffering that the thief confessed his sin and called out to Jesus; and it was in response to his confession and call that Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Death is not the end of existence, nor is it necessarily the end of suffering. Indeed, a person who is put out of his misery in this life may well be plunged into misery in the next life. Mindful of the wrath to come, we dare not hasten a person’s death.
Acceptance of death
By way of counterbalance, however, it should be said that people who resist euthanasia do not always have to resist their own deaths. God has appointed a time for us to die (Hebrews 9:27), and Christians in particular should be prepared to accept his appointment. We should not try to cling frantically to life like those who have no hope. Such behaviour arises from fear, not faith, and loses sight of the fact that the Lord Jesus has conquered death on behalf of those who love him.
Opposition to euthanasia does not even mean that we must always desire life. There are times when it is natural and moral to welcome death. On one occasion the apostle Paul declared, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). Whether from weariness or suffering or homesickness, we may well reach a time when “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). And although we are forbidden to take our own lives, we are nonetheless permitted to pray with Simeon, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace” (Luke 2:29).
Suffering need not be futile
Thanks to advances in palliative care, few people in the Western world need suffer extreme physical pain during the final stages of terminal illness. Even so, there may well be suffering arising from a fear of death, an anxiety for loved ones, a loss of dignity, a loss of independence, and a deterioration in quality of life.
While no one welcomes such distress, Christians should recognise it as part of God’s dealings with mankind. God uses suffering to wean us from sin and to win us to himself. He also uses it to develop endurance, character and hope in his people (Romans 5:3-4). Whether or not we can see it ourselves, God has a purpose in suffering. Instead of rebelling against him when we suffer, we should rely on him to help us through it and be responsive to him to learn from it.
Suffering is inevitable. But for God’s people, it is not futile. Nor is it permanent. A time is coming when God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Indeed, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18; cf 2 Corinthians 4:16-17). If we remember this, we will neither lose heart during suffering nor kill ourselves or others to end it.
The right to a good death
Advocates of euthanasia claim that “everyone has the right to a good death.” Consequently, “we all have the right to make choices about what we will or won’t find an acceptable way to live. And so we all have the right to choose what we will do when the quality of our lives becomes unacceptable.” It is entirely up to us to decide whether we think this or that is “a good enough reason to die”, and it is our prerogative to choose “how and when to die.” Therefore we should have “full control” over our death so that we can be guaranteed of “dying with dignity”.9 Such claims are seriously mistaken.
Talk about the right to exercise full control over our death is simply bravado and bluster. No one has a “right” to anything so far as death is concerned. None of us knows how or when we will die, and none of us can add a single hour to our lives (Matthew 6:22). Our ignorance and impotence are absolute. Euthanasia is not a means of gaining control over death but of capitulating to it.
Furthermore, talk about the right to determine the time and method of our death is arrogance and rebellion. It is an affront to the sovereignty of God. He alone is the giver, sustainer, owner and terminator of all life. Consequently, he alone has the right to choose how and when we will die. “All souls are mine,” the Lord declares (Ezekiel 18:4). They are created when he sends forth his Spirit; and they die when he takes away their breath (Psalm 104:29-30). “So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). We cannot do what we please with our lives because our lives do not belong solely to us. We hold them in trust.
Talk about the right to die if conditions becomes personally unacceptable limits the value of life to the quality of life. However, unlike the quality of life, the value of life does not vary with circumstances. It is not arbitrary but absolute. Human life is to be valued in every circumstance. We are not at liberty to kill ourselves or others when things are not to our liking. We do not have an absolute right to determine what we will and will not put up with. Rather, like the apostle Paul we have a responsibility to learn, in whatever state we are, to be content. We must learn “the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.” That secret is found in the realisation that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:11-13).
Talk about “a good death” and “death with dignity” is also misguided. The process of death may be “good” in the negative sense that it is quick rather than slow or painless rather than painful. But it can never be good in a positive sense. Physically at least, there are no benefits in the dying process. And death itself is anything but good. It is a horror and an outrage. It entered human experience because of sin (Romans 5:12) and is a chief means by which Satan has subjected us to fear and bondage (Hebrews 2:14). It is “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). There is no goodness or dignity in it. On the contrary, death is the ultimate indignity, the ultimate degradation, of human life.
From a Christian point of view, what constitutes a good death is not the absence of pain but the presence of faith. It is through faith in God that we receive divine approval (Hebrews 11:2). However, such approval may actually contribute to our suffering in this life. The Bible records how some of the faithful who enjoyed God’s approval “were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword …” (Hebrews 11:35-37). There was nothing dignified about the deaths of these believers. Nonetheless, their deaths were good in the only sense that matters: they died for and with God.
Naturally, we should avoid suffering where possible; but we should not avoid it at any cost. For while freedom from suffering is desirable, it is not the highest good.
Writing from a Roman prison, Paul said his desire was that “with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). This should be the principal goal of all God’s people. To that end, in the face of mounting enthusiasm for euthanasia, we would be wise to pray, “Father, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
1. Paul van Reyk, Choosing to Die: A booklet for people thinking about euthanasia and for those asked to assist (AIDS Council of New South Wales, 1994), p.11.
2. “Holland shows how euthanasia leads to active killing”, News Weekly,25 February 1995, p.6.
3. “Euthanasia in Holland”, Right to Life News, March 1995, p.3.
4. “Holland shows how euthanasia leads to active killing”, op. cit.
5. Reader’s Digest, February 1998.
6. “Encounter” programme, ABC Radio National, 17 October 1993. Available on cassette tape from ABC Radio Tape Sales.
7. “Euthanasia in Holland”, op. cit.
8. Unless indicated otherwise, all quotations of from the Bible are taken from the Revised Standard Version (1971).
9. Paul van Reyk, op. cit., pp.7, 12-13.
First published by Life Ministries under the title, “Euthanasia:
A Dangerous Enthusiasm”, in 1995. Reprinted in 1995.
Revised & reprinted in 2007.
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown, 2007