Euthanasia or “Mercy Killing”

Euthanasia or “Mercy Killing”

James T Naismith

Dr. James T. Naismith of Scarborough, Ontario, is a retired physician who devotes his full time to a Bible teaching ministry.

This is his third in a series of four articles dealing with several of today’s difficult and complex problems.

“Euthanasia” literally means “dying well”: that is, gentle, easy death. The word was introduced with this meaning in the 17th century. Such a gentle, easy passing should be the desire and objective of every physician treating a terminally ill patient. However, like many other words in the dictionary, this has changed — or, perhaps, expanded — its meaning through time and it has come to be applied to the deliberate termination of the life of a person suffering from a distressing or irremediable disease or disability. It has even been used of the intentional killing of persons so deficient mentally or physically as to be considered of no value to society. Such actions should, of course, be condemned by Christians and non-Christians alike.

In this study our consideration will be restricted to the termination of the life of a person suffering from a painful, disabling or incurable disease, who personally requests that his or her life be ended. Such situations occur frequently in the practice of many physicians and require some of the most difficult decisions in medicine.

Euthanasia has been divided into three categories: 1. Administration of a poisonous or noxious substance with intent to kill. Legally, this is regarded as murder or, at least, manslaughter, thus a criminal offence. 2. Administration of therapeutic doses of pain-killing medication in the knowledge that, because of the development of tolerance to the drug, increasing quantities will be required to keep the patient free from pain and ultimately may contribute to his death. 3. Withholding of further therapeutic measures which could prolong the life of the individual, thus allowing him to die.

Advances in medicine and technology have created increasing difficulties for physicians treating patients who cannot be cured and who are suffering intensely. Patients may be kept alive today who, not long ago, would certainly have died, and who would die now if a machine were unplugged or if other forms of treatment were withheld. Moreover, there is sometimes a conflict regarding the use of life-support measures — which may be very costly, and are usually quite limited. Should the resources be spent on those who are more likely to respond favourably and benefit more from treatment? Or should such treatment be on a “first come first serve” basis? Many factors complicate such decisions.

To treat or not to treat? that is the question. In some cases, treating a patient who is inevitably going to die is simply prolonging the act of dying. On the other hand, the discovery of new cures makes previously incurable diseases amenable to treatment; sometimes it is possible to maintain the life of a patient until such measures become available. Doctors are sometimes wrong in their diagnosis and prognosis, and patients not expected to recover sometimes do — almost remarkably.

What is the Christian attitude to euthanasia?

1. All human life is sacred. We have an obligation to God, in Whose image man was made, to maintain that life where possible. Included in the Hippocratic Oath, which doctors take, is the vow: “I will administer no fatal medicine to anyone, even if solicited, nor will I offer such advice.”

2. We also have a responsibility to our fellow-man: to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matt. 19:19, etc.), and therefore to do to others as we would have done to us (Matt. 7:12), as commanded by our Lord while on earth. Thus we should not deprive them of any treatment that will prove beneficial. Sometimes, however, it is more compassionate to allow believers to go to be with the Lord than to retain them here on earth for the sake of having them with us.

3. In His life on earth, the Lord Jesus has given us the supreme example of compassion and care for those who are in dire physical need. We cannot match His power in curing the incurable, but we should emulate His compassion for those in need. The care of those who are dying requires love, tenderness, compassion, time and patience. As Christians, we should be willing to give that loving support and compassionate care — including food, warmth, attention and affection —even if the end result seems inevitable. Every measure should be used to alleviate suffering, if possible without shortening life, and to provide the maximum of comfort for those who, it would seem, are soon to depart from us. There are available today medical measures which, if properly administered, can go a long way toward making most patients relatively comfortable. These combined with the compassionate, tender, loving care provided by the attendant will provide true euthanasia — gentle, easy dying.