A Religious Response to Euthanasia
A Compendium of Denominational Statements
Assisted suicide and euthanasia are two increasingly dangerous ideas attempting to change the way our society perceives medical treatment, the patient-doctor relationship and end-of-life care. These two concepts are being promoted through manipulation of deceptive euphemisms which suggest both actions are acceptable in "compassionately" bringing about death. The truth is, physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia threaten our most precious right as human beings; the right to life. Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia only succeed at eliminating society's weakest members that presumably present a tremendous drain on our resources. Since the emergence of assisted suicide proponent Jack Kevorkian, the push to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia has so escalate, that silence is no longer a feasible response against the campaign for sanctioned killing.
The purpose of this compendium is to share a religious perspective in opposition to legalizing physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Although there is a diverse representation of 52 religious denominations presented, all of their statements contain elements of a common belief – that any intervention into the process of death that deliberately causes a premature death violates man's ultimate covenant with God. These statements remind us that death is a major part of the life cycle. We must remember that it is God who gives us life, and it is God who, subsequently, determines when death is appropriate in order to fulfill the cycle of life. We as individuals cannot and do not possess the right to assume that power for ourselves, nor should we delegate that authority to the government.
The following statement provide insight and direction for those members of each denomination who are not only unsure about the church's position but also about their own feelings on the issue of euthanasia and how it effects their relationship with God. Please note that some of the statements re-printed here are excerpts from the original document. Refer to the bibliography for a listing of the complete documents.
Administrative Committee National Conference of Catholic Bishops
Current efforts to legalize euthanasia place our society at a critical juncture. These efforts have received growing public attention due to new publications giving advice on methods of suicide and some highly publicized instances in which family members or physicians killed terminally ill persons or helped them kill themselves. Proposals such as those in the Pacific Northwest, spearheaded by the Hemlock Society, aim to change state laws against homicide and assisted suicide to allow physicians to provide drug overdoses or lethal injections to their terminally ill patients.
Those who advocate euthanasia have capitalized on people's confusion, uncertainty, and even fear about the use of modern life-prolonging technologies. Further, borrowing language from the abortion debate, they insist that the "right to choose" must prevail over all other considerations. Being able to choose the time and manner of one's death is presented as the ultimate freedom. A decision to take one's life or to allow a physician to kill a suffering patient, however, is very different from a decision to refuse extraordinary or burdensome treatment.
We believe that life is the most basic gift from a loving God - a gift over which we have stewardship but not absolute dominion. Although our tradition declares a moral obligation to care for our own life and health and to seek such care from others, it also recognizes that we are not morally obligated to use all available medical procedures in every set of circumstances. But that tradition clearly and strongly affirms that as a responsible steward of life one must never directly
intend to cause one's own death, or the death of an innocent victim by action or omission.
As the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has said, "nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying." Moreover, we have no right to "ask for this act of killing" for ourselves or for those entrusted to our care; "nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such action." We are dealing here with "a violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity" (Declaration on Euthanasia, 1980).
Legalizing euthanasia would also violate American convictions about human rights and equality. The Declaration of Independence proclaims our inalienable rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." If our right to life itself is diminished in value, our other rights will have no meaning. To destroy the boundary between healing and killing would mark a radical departure from longstanding legal and medical traditions of our country, posing a threat of unforeseeable magnitude to vulnerable members of our society. Those who represent the interests of elderly persons with disabilities, and persons with AIDS or other terminal illnesses, are justifiably alarmed when some hasten to confer on them the "freedom" to be killed.
We call on Catholics, and on all persons of good will, to reject proposals to legalize euthanasia. We urge families to discuss issues surrounding the care of terminally ill loved ones in light of sound moral principles and the demands of human dignity, so that patients need not feel helpless or abandoned in the face of complex decisions about their future. And we urge health care professionals, legislators, and all involved in this debate, to seek solutions to the problems of terminally ill patients and their families that respect the inherent worth of all human beings, especially those most in need of our love and assistance.
Christian Reformed Church in North America
The Christian Reformed Church in North America, in a 1971 report presented to synod several recommendations which were submitted and adopted including, "that synod, mindful of the sixth commandment, condemn the wanton or arbitrary destruction of any human being at any state of its development from the point of conception to the point of death." The CRNA is also a member of the National Association of Evangelicals and therefore adheres to its official resolution.
Jewish - Conservative
Human life is precious and its preservation takes precedence over every other consideration. This includes the obligation to visit the sick and the permission to violate the Sabbath to help a person afflicted with a dangerous illness. It also includes the obligation of forbearance from doing anything that might hasten the death of a sick person, no matter how serious the illness (Maimonides, Hil. Aveil 4:5). Hence, euthanasia is forbidden under any circumstances. However, if death is certain, and the patient suffers greatly, it is permissible to desist from postponing death by artificial means.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
An emphasis on patients' rights, a health care system often unable to respond adequately to catastrophic illness, and the emergence of disease processes (such as AIDS and Alzheimer's disease) that threaten dramatic loss of human capacities are a few of the realities that have converged to create an environment where some patients ask that their life be ended. Is it ever morally permissible for a physician to deliberately act or authorize an action to terminate the life of a patient?
The integrity of the physician-patient relationship is rooted in trust that physicians will act to preserve the life and health of the patient. Physicians and other health care professionals also have responsibility to relieve suffering. This responsibility includes the aggressive management of pain, even when it may result in an earlier death.
However, the deliberate action of a physician to take the life of a patient, even when this is the patient's wish, is a different matter. As a church we affirm that "deliberately destroying life created in the image of God is contrary to our Christian conscience." While this affirmation is clear, we also recognize that responsible health care professionals struggle to choose the lesser evil in ambiguous borderline situations -- for example, when pain becomes so unmanageable that life is indistinguishable from torture.
We oppose the legalization of physician-assisted death, which would allow the private killing of one person by another. Public control and regulation of such actions would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The potential for abuse, especially of people who are most vulnerable, would be substantially increased.
Caring treatment that allows death to occur within the bounds of what is morally acceptable may help reduce the appeal of physician-assisted death. Hospice care offers promise of more humane treatment at the end of life. A more equitable health care system that more effectively responds to catastrophic illness and provides the needed follow-up care should also be a priority for those concerned about end-of-life decisions.
Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod
Advocates of euthanasia, as well as of assisted suicide, have sought to justify the taking of human life on moral grounds by describing it as a truly compassionate act aimed at the relief of human suffering. In light of what the Scriptures say about the kind of care God wills that we provide to those who suffer and are facing death, we reject such claims as neither compassionate nor caring. Christians aim always to care, never to kill.
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod at its 1992 convention recognized the growing need "to counteract a false understanding of compassion in our culture which claims that terminating the lives of those who are weak and helpless is a compassionate act" and to provide spiritual care and support to those who must help to bear the burdens of those who suffer. A report by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations issued a report on euthanasia in 1979. It specifically commended to the members of the Synod for reference and guidance twelve principles presented in the report as they addressed ethical questions related to euthanasia and assisted suicide. Those twelve principles are as follows:
1. Euthanasia, in its proper sense, is a synonym for mercy killing, which involves suicide and/or murder. It is, therefore, contrary to God's Law.
2. As Creator, God alone knows with certainty whether a disease or an injury is incurable.
3. When the God-given powers of the body to sustain its own life can no longer function and doctors in their professional judgment conclude that there is no real hope for recovery even with life-support instruments, a Christian may in good conscience "let nature take its course."
4. Administering pain-killing medications, even at the risk of shortening life, is permissible, since this does not entail the choice of death as either a means or an end.
5. It is good ethical procedure for the doctor to request and receive a statement signed by the patient, if competent to consent, or by the nearest of kin, agreeing to the uselessness of further "heroic efforts" and consenting to termination of treatments.
6. Each person, no matter how infirm and socially useless he or she may appear to be, deserves to be accepted as a being created in the image of God.
7. While suffering is an intrusion into life, it provides the opportunity for Christian witness and service.
8. Often the time prior to death is so wrapped in mystery that no one ought forcibly to interrupt the movement of a man's spirit as it may be communicating through God's Spirit and his Creator and Redeemer by way of responding in trust and inner yearning.
9. Death is not merely a physical but a crucial spiritual event for each person.
10. Any decision made in this highly complex area, and any actions taken that may later appear to have been wrong, have been redeemed by that forgiveness which is available to all who put their trust in the work and merits of mankind's Savior and Redeemer.
11. The spiritual and moral questions raised by the issue of euthanasia are of such nature that their evaluation is an enterprise touching on the very survival of the basic principles which undergird the integrity of our Christian faith and the survival of our cultural heritage. They constitute the primary spiritual and moral crucible of this age.
12. Christians are obligated to make their position known, by whatever means possible, as a way of helping to shape public opinion on the questions of euthanasia.
National Association of Evangelicals
"Termination of Medical Treatment"
Human beings are made in the image of God and are, therefore, of inestimable worth. God has given people the highest dignity of all creation. Such human dignity prohibits euthanasia, that is actively causing a person's death.
In the past 30 years, medical technology has developed systems that have enabled physicians to more effectively care for their patients and save lives that would otherwise be lost. However, this technology has also resulted in the possibility of prolonging the dying process beyond its normal course. This often causes great suffering, not only for the patient, but also for the family, friends and caregivers.
Such technology also raises moral questions. For example, is it moral to withdraw a life-support system which is believed to be an inappropriate extension of the dying process? The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) believes that in cases where patients are terminally ill, death appears imminent and treatment offers no medical hope for a cure, it is morally appropriate to request the withdrawal of life-support systems, allowing natural death to occur. In such cases, every effort should be made to keep the patient free of pain and suffering, with emotional and spiritual support being provided until the patient dies.
When a person's cerebral cortex dies, is it moral for the family or medical staff to withdraw life-support systems? The National Association of evangelicals believes that in cases where extensive brain injury has occurred and there is clear medical indication that the patient has suffered brain death (permanent unconscious state), no medical treatment can reverse the process.
(Brain death is not the equivalent of a coma. A patient might awaken from a coma, but not from brain death.) Removal of any extraordinary life-support system at this time is morally appropriate and allows the dying process to proceed. Under such circumstances, appropriate action is best taken where there is guidance from a signed "living will" or a durable power of attorney for health care. Where there is no "living will" or durable power of attorney for health care, the decision to withdraw life support should be made by the family and/or closest friends in consultation with a member of the clergy, when available, and the medical staff.
NAE acknowledges that the withdrawal of life-support systems is an emotional and difficult issue. However, we believe that medical treatment that serves only to prolong the dying process has little value. It is better that the dying process be allowed to continue and the patient permitted to die.
This is especially true of those who know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. For as the Apostle Paul said: "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8).
(Resolution adopted at the 1994 Annual Conference)
The following denominations and fellowships hold membership in the National Association of Evangelicals:
Advent Christian General Conference
Assemblies of God
Baptist General Conference
The Brethren Church (Ashland, Ohio)
Brethren in Christ Church
Christian & Missionary Alliance
Christian Catholic Church (Evangelical Protestant)
Christian Church of North America
Christian Reformed Church in North America
Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee)
Church of God, Mountain Assembly, lnc.
The Church of the Nazarene
Church of the United Brethren in Christ
Churches of Christ in Christian Union
Conservative Baptist Association
Conservative Congregational Christian Conference
Conservative Lutheran Association
Evangelical Church of North America
Evangelical Congregational Church
Evangelical Free Church of America
Evangelical Friends International of North America
Evangelical Mennonite Church
Evangelical Methodist Church
Evangelical Presbyterian Church
Evangelical Missionary Fellowship
Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Church
Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas
Free Methodist Church of North America
General Association of General Baptists
International Church of the Feuresquure Gospel
International Pentecostal Church of Christ
International Pentecostal Holiness Church
Mennonite Brethren Churches, USA
Midwest Congregational Christian Fellowship
Missionary Church, Inc.
Open Bible Standard Churches
Pentecostal Church of God
Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church, Inc.
Presbyterian Church in America
Primitive Methodist Church, USA
Reformed Episcopal Church
Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America
The Salvation Army
Synod of Mid-America (Reformed Church in America)
The Wesleyan Church
Synod of the Great Lakes - Reformed Church in America
Physician assisted suicide is active voluntary euthanasia. It is active euthanasia because it employs means which intentionally cause the death of the patient. It is voluntary because the patient makes the choice. When one looks at the issue in terms of these distinctions two separate moral questions arise: 1) Is it morally appropriate for a Christian to request assistance
indirectly causing his or her own death? 2) Is it morally appropriate for a Christian physician to comply with the wishes of a patient who makes such a request? What Christians say about issues of morality ought to be and usually is reflective of their fundamental faith convictions.
There are at least three of these convictions that appear especially relevant to the question of whether it is acceptable for Christians to seek a physician's assistance in committing suicide in the midst of extreme suffering. A fundamental conviction Christians have is that life is a gift from God, and each individual its steward. A primary responsibility is to honor God in one's living. Contemporary arguments for the "right" to assistance to commit suicide are based on ideas of each individual's autonomy over his or her life. Christian's cannot claim such autonomy; Christians acknowledge that they belong to God. Therefore, a decision to take one's own life thus appears to be a denial that one belongs to God.
A second conviction is that God does not abandon people in times of suffering. Christians express their faith in God's love by trusting in God's care for them. A decision to end one's life would appear to be a cessation of that trust. Pain may seem unbearable, life might seem no longer worth living, suffering may appear beyond relief. Suffering calls upon people to trust God even in the valley of the shadow of death. It calls on people to let God, and not suffering, determine the agenda of their life and their death.
A third conviction is that in the community of God's people caring for those who are dying is a burden Christians are willing to share. The whole Christian community must provide support for the individual sufferer and the individual caregiver who have determined that going on in the face of suffering is a faithful response to God. The Church cannot demand such courage by rejecting assisted suicide without at the same time providing the care that makes it possible to live with suffering.
Part of the Christian response to the public debate about assisted suicide is to create communities of care which reduce the likelihood people will choose physician-assisted suicide. One of the most common justifications offered for physician-assisted suicide is the stated desire that "I never want to become a burden to my family." However, the care offered by those who love us makes suffering possible to bear. A person's willingness to bear his or her suffering is an expression of
trust in God. It is also an expression of trust that those who love them will care for them even in difficult times. A willingness to go on even in the midst of suffering offers those who love them the opportunity to care for them. Do these three convictions lead to the conclusion that Christians must never make the choice to take their own lives? At the very least, these convictions infer that to do so would be morally troublesome. Taking one's life appears to be a violation of some fundamental Christian convictions.
Proponents of physician-assisted suicide argue that people care for pets and animals who are in pain by "putting them to sleep," therefore, shouldn't humans do at least the same for their loved ones? Aside from the fact that animals and humans are treated differently in many ways, there are moral constraints and obligations arising from fundamental beliefs about responsibilities to God and to each other that define appropriate care.
One obligation is to eliminate the suffering of others with the constraint that people cannot eliminate the suffering by eliminating the sufferer. Why isn't eliminating the sufferer an appropriate part of medicine? The argument here is that it is neither a part of cure nor is it care. The refusal by medical care-givers to assist in a patient's suicide is a pledge that the caregiver will never give up on a patient, never cease active forms of care. It is a pledge by medicine to find more effective ways of eliminating pain, of providing emotional support, and of assisting the suffer to experience a "good death" that doesn't end the patient's life.
When we consider how Christian convictions influence a choice for assisted suicide, the primary concern is not to protect or deny peoples' rights, but to explain why Christians, given their convictions, are apt to see something as right or wrong. On the whole, Christians value the individual liberty that allows them to act on the basis of their distinctive moral commitments.
However, a shared Christian commitment does not seem to be consistent with a choice to take one's own life, even under conditions of extreme suffering.
"A Christian Response To Physician-Assisted Suicide." Reports on Christian Action. Report of the Commission on Christian Action of the Synod of the Great Lakes - Reformed Church in America. October 1993.
A Message on End-of-Life Decisions. Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American. 1993.
Christian Care at Life's End. A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, February 1993.
Klein, Isaac A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. New York: KTAV, 1979.
"Statement on Abortion and Birth Control." Acts of Synod. p. 48, 1971.
Statement on Euthanasia. Administrative Committee National Conference of Catholic Bishops, September 12, 1993.
"Termination of Medical Treatment." Resolution adopted at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals. 1994.