Euthanasia - a heretical thought

I am very cautious about attempts to legalize euthanasia. I am well aware of all the practical problems with doing so. However, I have never found a convincing argument to the effect that Christians should believe that euthanasia is always wrong in principle.

Why is it? No, honest - why?

The almost universal answer that I get from Christians is that only God has the right to take life. Now there is a good instinct in that claim but what interests me is that most of those who tell me this think that in some situations it is permitted to take a life (perhaps in war, perhaps in capital punishment). So most of these sincere Christians believe that sometimes it is permitted by God that human life is taken by humans.

Once one has crossed that line then it becomes a lot less clear to say that mercy killing is never permitted by God. Never? In fact, I do not find it at all hard to think that in principle God might use euthanasia in some circumstances to mercifully take a life. To me that has always seemed reasonable.

I'm not sure that I could ever do it. My instincts would be very much against it but I would not rule out a priori that it might be the right thing, indeed the holy thing to do in a particular situation.

So shoot me!


Anonymous said…
Hi Robin,

I guess my question would be under what specific circumstances would you see killing as being merciful?

In any situation my mind jumps to, to take life would seem to be an anti-God statement - either a kind of fatalism, expressing a lack of trust in God's ability to change the situation or sustain us in it or a rejection of the value of life and its giftedness (as if circumstances can be said to make some lives less precious and less worth living). Though I think we should certainly work to end suffering to alleviate suffering by ending people seems to deny our union with Christ in his suffering (and Christ as our example) and the intertwined nature of suffering and glory in this present age. I think this is why Christ's death was not suicide - his life really was his to lay down.

This it what I think but my words feel cheap as I know I'm not, at present, facing this myself.

Anonymous said…

You make a good point about Christians believing there are appropriate times to kill, and it does seem that those so loudly opposed to euthanasia are those who can be committed to the death penalty and war. Then, there are those like Stanley Hauerwas a who are pacifists, anti-death penalty, and anti-euthanasia.

Still, my concerns about it revolve more on how have scientific advances moved on to the point where we can now keep people alive in such a state where as even a few years ago trauma received would have meant certain death. In other words, if the technology had not been available, would we be talking about this at all? In those situations, is euthanasia ok?

Robin Parry said…
Matt (not-so-undercover, right?)

Thanks for these very helpful theological reflections. Your concerns are not illegitimate.

Let me start at the end. Suffering with Christ. In the NT suffering with Christ is about suffering opposition and persecution for one's fidelity to the gospel. If we wish to apply it more broadly (e.g., to a patient with a painful, terminal illness) then we need to realise that we are making an imaginative theological leap and we are one step removed from authoritative biblical teaching. In other words we are in a zone that is not necessarily black and white.

Second thought, if suffering with Christ in the midst of a painful, terminal illness is such a spiritual plus then I do not understand why you would suggest that we should work to end and alleviate suffering. Why not leave it be so that people can experience union with Christ? So you will need to hedge that approach around with some safeguards or it could lead to an unpleasant world.

Christ did choose to lay down his life for others and embraced suffering to save them. In this he is indeed a model. But this is not the same as a person whose suffering is neither chosen nor will bring benefits to others. We must be careful not to place all suffering into a single box and treat it the same.

Is taking life an expression of a lack of trust in God's ability to change a situation? No more so than a decision to go to a doctor if prayer for a sick person does not bring miraculous healing. Or the decision to go to war when attempts to resolve a situation peacefully fail.

Indeed, presumably in the 'ideal' case the Christian who chooses to take the life of a loved one does so because they think that the person's time has come and God wants them to do it. It need not be a lack of faith in God but an act motivated by faith in divine mercy. Of course, I can see all sorts of dangers in the application of such an approach and I think that the problem is in the practise as abuses are easy to envisage.

Is euthanasia a rejection of the value of life? Well, it is a rejection of the belief that under NO circumstances could a life ever be taken. But that does not mean that it is a rejection of the value of life. Human life is very valuable indeed. Recognition that euthanasia might sometimes be right is simply an affirmation that in some circumstances the value of life does not trump all other considerations.

Thanks for offering some real theological reflections.
Robin Parry said…


1. I have no problems with pacifists opposing euthanasia (though I think that euthanasia might be compatible with pacifism).

2. You are right that our problems are much amplified by technology which manages to keep people alive who in previous generations would have died.

3. However, I cannot answer your question. You ask if euthanasia would be OK in the cases in 2. above. But the kinds of cases in 2 are very diverse indeed and I suspect that in the majority of them euthanasia would not be appropriate. In the cases in which it might be appropriate it would not be so by simple virtue of the fact that the patient was saved and is being kept alive by means of technology. That could never be grounds for euthanasia.

I cannot say exactly what grounds would be required for euthanasia to be justified. The following factors would be of some relevance
- the patient wants to die (this is necessary but clearly not sufficient)
- the patient has a terminal condition and is, so far as we can tell, nearing the end
- the patient is in considerable pain which there has been limited success in controling

I don't imagine that this is nearly sufficient to justify euthanasia but it points us in a direction.
Me said…
Cheers for this post- has made me think. There is a letter-writing campaign that I was invited to participate in the other day against the possibility of legalising euthanasia here in Scotland.

My gut reaction (and probably still my current response) would be to still support the campaign, but your post is certainly food for thought although it does make me feel a bit uncomfortable (and challenged!).
Robin Parry said…

Well, right now I too would be very cautious about legislation and I would certainly consider opposing legislation to allow euthanasia.

The problem with legislation is how to frame a law that would allow possible cases of legitimate euthanasia but not allow others. That is not easy. So I tend to err on the side of caution.

That said, as I am open to some cases of euthanasia in principle then I would be open to proposals for good legislation.

When I was a member of SPUC (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) it always perplexed me that they campaigned so strongly against euthanasia. For a start they were a single-issue pressure group and euthanasia seemed to fall outside the parameters of the issue. But also it concerned me that they seemed to view the two issues (abortion and euthanasia) as joined at the hip. If you oppose abortion then you will oppose euthanasia. Really? This is not necessarily the case because, for obvious reasons, the two issues are actually quite different in morally significant ways. It is perfectly coherent to oppose abortion on principled grounds but not to oppose euthanasia in some cases. Not sure why I digressed onto that point.
Anonymous said…
Hi Robin,
No not so undercover! All very good points.
The point you make about not collapsing sufferings into one category that can then neatly be mapped onto Christ is a good one. (I'm troubled by the thought I'm doing a Job's friends kind of thing!)
Part of what animates my desire to reject your argument is the observation that in order to kill people a strategy is employed of dehumanising. Rationales are given as to why the person is less-than-human. They did the crime, they are evil oppressors, they suffer. If you are able to persuade enough people that the person is no more than an animal then 'putting them down' (as Baroness Warnock has advocated for Alzheimer’s suffers) becomes more possible and changes the societal structures by which the value of life is commonly assessed - value is linked to capacities.
I'm trying to get at whether we can really say that suffering so changes who we are that what could rejected at one point of someone's life is endorsed at another.
Robin Parry said…

some good concerns. But need things be that way? Must an argument for euthanasia work by de-humanizing someone? Might it not work by recognizing their worth and dignity as humans in God's image? Those who support euthanasia usually support it because they believe that human dignity requires it in some situations. They might not agree on which situations but I do not see them arguing that those to be euthanaized are sub-human.

Quite the opposite. It is because humans are so precious that in some situations euthanasia might be the right thing to do.
Anonymous said…
The legal status euthanasia is one of the issues I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with being decisive on. Does the state have the right to ensure your future freedoms by violating your current ones? I just don't know. It's very much like the question of voluntary slavery/forfeit of rights.

Either way, I'd very much like to see a world where every person valued the life, however little is left of it, that God granted them enough not to choose to end it.

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