For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Ps. 90:10, 12
“There may be intelligences or sparks of divinity in millions – but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.” – Keats (also title credits to Keats)
From where do we acquire those identities? Sociologists claim that, instead of entering the world with a personality pre-engrained in our chromosomes, we learn who we “are” from society; young children observe reactions to their behavior and modify it accordingly. Positive reactions causes repetition of the behavior, while a negative adult reaction results in cessation of a particular action. Another theory states simply that it is functional – and therefore likely what happens – for parents to impress upon their children the norms and values they themselves learned as youths. Thus children are taught the “right” way to be by their parents and teachers, and this shapes their adult personalities. This is not to discount genetics entirely, however; “nature” does—indeed, must—determine somewhat how we react in situations our socialization has not trained us for. Lord of the Flies offers an instance in which the boys, opportunistically dropped onto a nearly paradise-island with complete lack of adult supervision (socialization-enforcement), responded not humanly but genetically by seeking only to preserve the self.
In addition to molding our personalities, society impresses its mores onto our young minds, mores that we carry with us even unconsciously through to adulthood. The more of particular interest for this post is the injunction against killing. I have heard that in Massachusetts suicide is illegal (this raises interesting questions regarding the punishment of such “criminals,” for if they succeed what legal action can be taken against them?). Nearly every society emphasizes the inherent wrong-ness of destroying another human being, although simultaneously most societies provide for instances in which that more is suspended: during wartime soldiers may—must—kill, and police may legitimately kill in defense of the public. Indeed, in the American society one can sidestep a “murder” charge by explaining it was “self-defense,” a claim most people accept as an exception to the injunction against killing.
However, periodically the question of euthanasia comes up as a topic of debate in the public eye. According to the American Medical Association, “Euthanasia is the administration of a lethal agent by another person to a patient for the purpose of relieving the patient’s intolerable and incurable suffering”; as it “is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, [euthanasia] would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.” Additionally, the British Medical Association “considers that the opportunities for manipulation and abuse in such a situation would be unacceptable”, meaning that if euthanasia was legalized, human nature would be apt to manipulate that opportunity. The BMA grants that a small group of patients may be justified in their desire for death if their symptoms cannot be alleviated and the rest of the patient’s short (or perhaps, even worse, long) life will be agony. Yet “even for this group of patients, however, the BMA currently maintains that the societal price for changing the law would be unacceptably great and would contravene the principle of justice in reducing protection for the majority of vulnerable people.” Notice—aside from the physician’s oath-induced concern for life, both the AMA and the BMA recognizes that society would change drastically were doctors allowed to relieve their patients’ suffering through death. (This raises the question: is societal change bad?)
The common argument in favor of euthanasia which sways the public’s consciousness most strongly, is the appeal to beneficence. How, we are asked, can we coldly refuse to alleviate pain when a patient begs us to do so? If there is no other means, and the person specifically asks, how can we deny them their request? If a person is sane and asks for this service, can we say it’s not reasonable for them to escape? Shouldn’t people be allowed to choose their own fate—at least their own death? Apparently the Commonwealth of Massachusetts doesn’t think so (though I haven’t been able to verify the claim, which was made by my Major British Writers professor in class), and the governing bodies of physicians agree.
In the final analysis of the legality of euthanasia, I have to agree with the House of Lords: “Ultimately we do not believe that the arguments are sufficient reason to weaken society’s prohibition of intentional killing. That prohibition is the cornerstone of law and of social relationships. It protects each one of us impartially, embodying the belief that we all are equal. We do not want that protection to be diminished. We acknowledge that there are individual cases in which euthanasia may be seen by some to be appropriate. But individual cases cannot reasonably establish the foundations of a policy which would have such serious and widespread repercussions. Dying is not only a personal or individual affair. The death of a person affects the lives of others, often in ways and to an extent which cannot be foreseen. We believe that the issue of euthanasia is one in which the interests of the individual cannot be separated from the interests of society as a whole.” So, in the interest of society’s continued well-being, we must thus continue to reinforce the more against killing, even “mercy”-killings.
However, this does not answer the question of whether euthanasia is morally acceptable, and whether we ought to condone such actions. Though people may be in pain, how can I say that their life should end?
Non-Christian answer: I don’t know. If we allow a mother to decide if her baby lives or dies, how can we not also grant that adult the opportunity to determine her own life’s length? Yet still, when it comes to asking a physician to decide that X amount of pain is endurable, but Y is too much pain to endure and after point Y, they kill a patient… How can that be right? People fight to live; we daily “rescue” suicide-attempts against their wishes. I don’t think that we can easily justify, even on grounds of most serious pain, the morality of euthanasia.
Christian answer: God can even a terminal illness such as Lou Gehrig’s—which is a terrible way to die—to His good, as Kevin Jones showed us at BCS. He spent the last couple years of his life telling people about his disease and the good it brought. Kevin reoriented his life on Christ and his family when he realized that God had numbered his days. In thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that as Christians we cannot condone euthanasia any more than the AMA does, though on different grounds. Because human beings were created by God, and because He decides the length of our lives, we cannot take into our hands the cutting-short of those days (this includes suicide, which, I will confess, I have considered seriously more than a few times). Job 14:5 tells us that it is God who determines our life’s years: “Man’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed.” Psalm 48:14 says that God is our “God forever and ever; He will be our guide even to death.”
It comes down to this: society cannot condone euthanasia because people would abuse it, and Christians cannot condone euthanasia because in taking a life—even a life that may be filled with suffering and sorrow—that is both destroying one of God’s creatures and going counter to His plan. When we’re meant to die, we will die, doctor’s efforts or no; until that time, it is our job to live as little Christs to the best of our abilities.
In other life news, Ian, Luke, and I made both chocolate-ball cookies and twice-baked potatoes last night in a baking/cooking bonanza that lasted from about 3:00 in the afternoon until 7:00. Both turned out wonderfully, and I’m greatly enjoying having both a reason to make real food and the real food itself. Classes re-started yesterday and I officially began worrying about my midterms, which occur on Thursday and Friday; I find it alarming how after but three classes I feel as if I’d never been on break. However, the novelty of waking up and having Ian there hasn’t yet worn off, and neither has my brief adjustment to London time: we keep waking up between 6:30 and 7:00. Also, as a final thought, please have a moment of silence for my lost fountain-pen, a gift from Ian that I have treasured and foolishly somehow lost yesterday.
– KF –