Can We Sanitize Euthanasia?

Sep 7th, 2019 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Historian Jon Meacham recently posted a story intentionally seeking to humanize, sanitize and legitimize euthanasia.  He writes:  “Tuesday [6 August 2019] was to be the day — in the morning, because everything was taken care of. The goodbyes had been said, the tears shed, the coffin handmade. In the spring of 2018, Dick Shannon, a former Silicon Valley engineer with untreatable cancer, took advantage of California’s ‘death with dignity’ law to end his own life once all other medical possibilities had been exhausted.  ‘My observation about the way people die, at least in America, is they.?.?. are not allowed the opportunity to be part of the process,’ Shannon explained. ‘For my way of thinking, the part that bothers me just immensely is not being allowed to be part of that process. It’s my death. Go with what you believe, but don’t tell me what I have to do.’ Discussing the ultimate decision with his doctor, Shannon remarked, ‘It’s hard to fathom. I go to sleep and that’s the end of it. I’ll never know anything different.’ He paused, and then said simply: ‘Okay.’  When the day came, Shannon was ready. The end-of-life medical cocktail was mixed in a silver stainless steel cup, and he drank it in front of his loving and tearful family. ‘I’ve accepted the fact that I’m dying,’ he’d said earlier. ‘There’s nothing I can do to stop it. Planning the final days of my life gives me a sense of participation and satisfaction.’ As he prepared to slip away, he told his family, ‘Just know that I love you — each and every one of you.’”


Meacham then attempts to place Shannon’s death in historical perspective:  “America is becoming ever more like itself when it comes to death. From Walden Pond to Huck Finn’s lighting out for the territory, we’re a nation of individualists, shaped and suffused by self-reliance and a stubborn allegiance to the live-free-or-die motto of the Revolutionary era.  With this twist: Baby boomers and their successor generations are insisting on being free to take control of death itself.  Innovation, creativity and customization — the hallmarks of our time, an age in which we can run much of our lives from our mobile phones — are now transforming both how we die and the mechanics of remembrance that come afterward.”  He goes on: “The United States has a long history of rethinking the rituals of death. Embalming became part of the popular understanding and tradition of death during the Civil War; the task then was to preserve the bodies of dead soldiers so their families could see them one final time. Abraham Lincoln may have done the most to raise the profile of embalming when he chose first to embalm his 11-year-old son and then when his own corpse was embalmed for the long train ride home to Springfield, Ill., after his assassination.”


How widespread are “death-with-dignity” laws?  Medically assisted suicide is permitted in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.  [The Netherlands and Belgium have the most permissive laws, for both nations routinely euthanize patients for dementia and depression.]   In America, eight states and the District of Columbia have death-with-dignity laws—and 18 other states are considering such laws in the 2019 legislative season.  Cleary, there is a growing accommodation to the “death-with-dignity” movement.  Doctor assisted suicide is a growing and acceptable practice in American civilization, buttressed by its growing legalization.  Regardless of this accommodation, death remains an ugly, ghastly part of the human condition.  The Bible declares that death is the result of sin (see Genesis 3 and Romans 1-5).  We cannot avoid its certainty and we cannot sanitize it through the “death-with-dignity” panacea.

In 2017, an unusual musical was amazingly popular in London:  “Assisted Suicide: The Musical,” created by Liz Carr, who suffers from a genetic disorder that prevents her from extending her muscles, among other impairments.  In an interview in the Wall Street Journal, Carr poignantly observed that “we don’t have anywhere to discuss death . . .  Assisted suicide holds those fears and allows people to have this outpouring of concern and worries that are human but that have nowhere to go.”   Sadly, Carr adds that she herself is an atheist, so she understands the vacuum that results from no religious moorings.  Christianity used to be the place where we could discuss and process death, but its appeal and its authority have dissipated within western civilization.  However, Carr’s observation establishes the most profound reason for investigating genuine biblical Christianity and thereby the revelation of God found in His Word.  Within that framework there can be an honest open discussion about death, anguish, pain and suffering.  And, within that framework, one can establish the absolute reason why humans have dignity, value and worth.  One of the most fundamental of all biblical propositions is that humans are created in God’s image:  Humans both resemble God (e.g., attributes such as intellect, emotion, will) and represent God (i.e., as His theocratic stewards, Gen. 1:26ff).  This truth provides the basis for the worth, value and dignity of humanity.

In this Postmodern era, western civilization is currently struggling with how to affirm human dignity without the biblical premise of being in God’s image.   We have no absolute, all-encompassing basis for establishing and affirming human dignity.  Further, given the Darwinian hypothesis, human life is merely a product of vast amounts of time, random chance and an impersonal force called natural selection; a “cosmic accident.”  If human beings are simply a more developed primate and a cosmic accident anyway, then why does it matter how we treat human life at any stage in its development?

As a Christian, I find the growing accommodation to assisted suicide within western civilization repugnant.  This is not about human dignity, for it defies comprehension that doctors would sanction such practices.  Former psychiatrist in chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital writes:  “The reasons for opposing . . . doctor-assisted suicide never went away.  The reasons have been with us since ancient Greek doctors wrote in the Hippocratic oath that ‘I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it nor will I make a suggestion to that effect.’  The oath is a central tenet in the profession of medicine, and it has remained so for centuries.”  Indeed, Dr. Leon Kass, former chair of President Bush’s Bioethics Commission, wrote on the Hippocratic Oath that “Medicine and surgery are not simply biological procedures but expressions, in action, of a profession given to helping nature in perpetuating and enhancing human life.  The doctor is the cooperative ally of nature not its master.  It should not need saying, but the exercises of healing people and killing people are opposed to one another.”  For that reason, the hospice movement, especially the Christian hospice movement, offers what the advocates of euthanasia can never provide—death with dignity.  The Christian hospice movement manages pain through drugs, ministers to the person through Scripture reading and the singing of hymns, thereby preparing the saint for heaven.  Hospice care preserves human dignity even at the end of life.  As Paul McHugh writes, “The doctors, nurses, and social workers committed to hospice care demonstrate how an alliance with nature [i.e., with God] at life’s end plays out in just the way that the medical profession intends.”  Human dignity is therefore preserved and maintained, something of eternal significance to our God.

See Jon Meacham, “We’re in the middle of a revolution on death,” in the Washington Post (12 August 2019); Sohrab Ahmari’s interview with Liz Carr in the Wall Street Journal (4-5 March 2017); and Paul McHugh in the Wall Street Journal (25-26 May 2013).

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