Life, Death, and Euthanasia

by Kimn Swenson Gollnick

When Eleanor James’ father developed esophageal cancer in 1990, questions about compassion for the dying and assisted suicide leaped out of the news and became reality for her family. As her father’s health deteriorated, they admitted him into hospice care. Eleanor and her family visited him daily.

She later wrote about the experience: “My dad, who stood 6 feet, 4 inches tall . . . lost 100 pounds. The cancer had spread to his lungs. He was confined to bed and fed through a food tube in his stomach. He couldn’t swallow water without regurgitating it . . . . he became incontinent . . . . Later his lungs [filled] with fluid. . . .”

Eleanor said her father suggested someone contact Jack Kevorkian and cried out, “Kill me!”
“It devastated us emotionally,” Eleanor revealed. She, her family, and the hospice staff worked hard to make him as comfortable as possible. “[But] we didn’t call Jack Kevorkian.” [1]

Public opinion

Since 1990 Dr. Jack Kevorkian has defied laws, judges, and even his own Hippocratic oath by helping more than a hundred patients terminate their lives. [2] And whether we agree with his methods or not, his actions are affecting public opinion.

In a 1997 survey conducted by Parade magazine, 66 percent of respondents felt “doctors should be allowed to help terminally ill patients die with dignity.” A CNN/USA Today poll taken in June 1997 showed 57 percent in favor, 35 percent opposed. An earlier Gallup Poll taken earlier in 1996 showed 75 percent support. An earlier Gallup Poll, taken in 1996, revealed 75 percent support. In an article last year for Christianity Today, Dr. Diane Komp said that polls show evangelical Christians express more ambivalence about this issue than they do about abortion. [3]

What should we think about euthanasia? To gain a clearer understanding, let’s examine the legal background, the issue itself, and what the Bible says.

Legal background

Right-to-die advocates point to the Netherlands as the model for legalizing euthanasia. However, it’s still technically illegal under Dutch Penal Code. The slippery slope of acceptance came in 1981, when the Rotterdam court established nine medical guidelines. These guidelines were initially intended to protect patients, but they also protected physicians against prosecution for directly killing or for helping patients die — as long as they followed these guidelines.

In 1991, the first government study of Dutch euthanasia became public in the Remmelink Report. The report states that despite the euthanasia guidelines “abuse [of patients] has become an accepted norm.” [4] In cases where doctors gave fatal overdoses to hasten a patient’s death, 61 percent of these was given without the patient’s consent. One physician from The Netherlands Cancer Institute claimed that it “would have been ‘rude'” to discuss the plan to end these patients’ lives “since they all knew they had incurable conditions.” [5]

Although still technically illegal in the Netherlands, euthanasia “is openly practiced and rarely prosecuted.” [6]

What about the U.S.?

Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide when citizens approved the Death with Dignity Act in 1994. After a long legal and political battle to overturn it, this act was finally implemented in late 1997. So far, four people have used it to terminate their lives.

Washington state’s law banning assisted suicide has been in effect since 1854, but it’s under attack. In 1994 Right-to-die advocates first introduced Initiative 119 to legalize physician-assisted suicide. When voters turned it down, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996 disregarded the citizens’ majority vote by ruling that state bans against physician-assisted suicides were unconstitutional. Washington’s Attorney General Christine Gregoire promptly filed an appeal.

Similar battles have appeared in other states, such as Michigan, New York, Wisconsin, and Florida. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the circuit court’s ruling in support of state bans, but stopped short of declaring a federal ban on physician-assisted suicide.

Currently, a bill is working its way through Congress that could potentially make it illegal for physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs for patients, giving hope to those who oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide. The fight continues.

The issue: pain or control?

Euthanasia advocates tell us that we have the right to choose how and when we die if we’re facing a terminal illness or reduced quality of life. Intellectually, this appeals to Americans’ basic sense of freedom, independence, and autonomy.

On a human level, “compassion in dying” also appeals to us. Most of us consider ourselves compassionate. We don’t want anyone to suffer.

However, researchers for the Journal of the American Medical Association found that pain was not the main concern of patients who asked for help to die. Instead, 75 percent said they “feared being a burden,” while 74 percent added that they “feared being dependent.” [7] Dr. Anthony Back, an oncologist and the study’s lead investigator, told The Seattle Times, “I think this points to a need for physicians to learn how to get at these issues a little better and improve their end-of-life care.”

End-of-life care involves caring for the patient as a person, not just as a patient. Holland opened its first hospice in 1994 with Dr. Zbigniew Zylicz as medical director. On a visit to Seattle last year, he told writer Christine Dubois that about half the patients who arrive at the hospice initially request euthanasia, but once their pain is under control and they experience the staff’s compassion, they change their minds. “By providing good care, you can prevent most cases of euthanasia,” he said. [8]

Deadly compassion?

Christianity Today published a three-part series by Gary L. Thomas entitled “Deadly Compassion.” Thomas interviewed Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, a professor at the Georgetown University Medical Center whose medical practice gave him experience with dying patients. Pellegrino told Thomas that when asked to assist a patient in dying, he did something else: He took time to figure out the patient’s physical, emotional, and psychological needs.

Pellegrino insists that euthanasia is not compassionate. “It is often more compassionate for the frustrated physician or hurting family than it is for the patient,” Pellegrino said. “In fact, assisted suicide is really a noncompassionate form of moral abandonment.” [9]

Seattle’s Catholic Archbishop Thomas Murphy agrees. Appearing in public for the first time after a long hospitalization for leukemia, Murphy (age 64) said, “There is the great cry to legalize assisted suicide to protect the dying from what they fear most: intractable pain, loss of control, human dignity and financial stress. Yet, assisted suicide is not compassion. True compassion is the willingness to share the pain of others, to be present to them, to learn from them and to recognize that human life is a gift of God.” [10]

Eleanor James’ article puts it more bluntly: “We didn’t smother my dad with a pillow or end his life through some other seemingly humane means. What we did, in my view, took more courage [because] the hardest, most terrible thing in the world is to watch someone you love suffer.” [11]

The night before her father died, Eleanor’s prayers were answered: He finally accepted Christ as his Savior. She describes her father’s peaceful passing: “There was no choking from the fluid in his lungs, no struggle, no horrified terror, no gasps, no expression of fear. Dad was breathing softly . . . and then, a minute later, he was gone . . . . My dad was free. . . .” [12]

What the Bible says

The desire to be free from pain isn’t a recent issue. Job, perhaps the Bible’s most famous sufferer, faced devastating losses and debilitating disease. As his body wasted away, his despair deepened. Job cried out, “[W]hy was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day?” (Job 3:16).

David, who wrote many of the Bible’s psalms, also expressed deep despair and his longing for release: “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest — I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm'” (Psalm 55:4-8).

However, David acknowledged God’s sovereignty: “For this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death” (Psalm 48:14, KJV, emphasis added).

God spoke to Job at length in response to his deepest questions (Job 38–41). When He finished, Job meekly answered, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand . . .” (Job 42:3).

God doesn’t ignore our questions about despair and trouble. Rather, He offers understanding and comfort: “I, even I, am he who comforts you” (Isaiah 51:12a). God is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3). He sent His Son, Jesus, to die for our sins so we could live forever with Him in eternity. Jesus, having walked and talked among us on earth, knows our weaknesses (12:9); He understands our fear of death (Hebrews 2:14, 15). Before he returned to heaven, Jesus didn’t promise a trouble-free life, but He did promise peace: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Though the Bible assures us of God’s comfort and strength in terminal illness, it also speaks against taking life — our own or someone else’s (Exodus 20:13). God directs us to choose life instead, for ourselves and those we touch: “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life . . .” (Deuteronomy 30:19, 20).

Why choose life?

Author, speaker, artist, and quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada addresses the impact euthanasia has on those around us in her book When Is It Right to Die? She quotes John Donne’s famous meditation:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. [13]

Joni goes on to explain that it’s easy to think that a life-or-death decision is private and therefore does not or should be involve anyone else. On the contrary, she beautifully describes the effect such a decision has on an intricate network of family and friends — even on doctors and nurses — at such a time. She asks:

Just what effect might your decision have? Your gutsy choice to face suffering head-on forces others around you to sit up and take notice. It’s called strengthening the character of a helping society. When people observe perseverance, endurance, and courage, their moral fiber is reinforced. Conversely, your choice to bow out of life can and does weaken the moral resolve of that same society. [14]

Let’s face it. Sometimes life is not easy. Terminal illness, whether our own or that of a loved one, is perhaps the most difficult event we’ll encounter. But by choosing life, even while an easy way out beckons, we strengthen our moral resolve to do the right thing. Inevitably, those around us are also changed by our choice. And that will make the real difference in the end.

Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, unless otherwise noted.