Friday, March 03, 2006

On Euthanasia, and Where I Disagree with Organized Religion

(Those atheists/agnostics who know me might enjoy my divergence from what I’ve been taught.)

Euthanasia, like capital punishment, war, and abortion, is a divisive moral issue. I haven’t heard a lot of non-Christians weighing in on the issue, but even within Christian circles different conclusions have been reached. And I know that many people (including some federal judges) don’t agree with Oregon’s statute on the issue (which allows doctors to perform assisted suicide).

We do it for our pets. Why not our parents?

We love our pets. I, for one, think that dogs are better than people. But when they get old, and can’t hold their bladders, and are in pain from cancer or can’t enjoy life anymore, then we do the merciful thing. We put them down. The day we put my first dog, Bernie, down was the saddest day of my life, but even my young mind (I was around 10 at the time) could understand that it was the humane thing to do. (I even found a web site once with a discussion on the most humane way to euthanize a goldfish—freezing or alcohol?) Now, on to Raider.

(Photo by Laura Hoffart)
Raider has been with my family for the better portion of my life (quantity and quality). He’s one of my best friends. He’s quite the character too. And at over 13 years of age (that’s 91 in dog years—98 in May) he’s still quite the happy old dog. He doesn’t have cancer to our knowledge, and he can still hold his bladder for over 12-14 hours on the odd occasion that’s necessary, despite having food and water always available. And he goes for a walk every day that the air outside is above 0 degrees Fahrenheit. But he does have some heart trouble. So when the air outside is cold, he wants a shorter walk.

I’m not looking forward to it, but when he doesn’t feel like walking anymore then it will be time. Why, when we put them down, do we do it?
1. Our dog is no longer capable of leading a happy life
2. Life is not worth living if you can’t be happy
3. THEREFORE, the humane thing to do is to euthanize him
Why is it, then, that we don’t apply the second premise to people? Is there some other premise that applies to human life than to animal life? Do we love our dogs more that we permit them to die when they can’t be happy (thereby being selfish in keeping our family members alive)? Or is it selfish euthanasia, that we don’t want our dogs around anymore when they’re not any fun? I certainly don’t think it’s the last one.

Until very recently I hadn’t come to this conclusion. Is it flawed? I don’t think so.

Do humans have an even stronger case?

Humans may have an even stronger case for euthanasia as applied to them. A mind that is more conscious of suffering, that can anticipate future suffering, is a mind that suffers more. Also, in many cases, the object of euthanasia can choose for him or herself whether to be “put down.” Whether we should ever actively euthanize a person who can’t decide (or refuse it for a person who ostensibly can) is a subject for next week.

What does religion have to say?

I put a lot of stock in what the Bible and the church have to say about moral issues. Whether you do or not it’s still useful to look to a group that’s been arguing about morality for much longer than you or I have. And when two denominations that don’t bullshit (tiptoe through the tulips/blow smoke up your butt/beat around the bush) about the issues are in disagreement, something can be learned from their division. And if there’s anything that applies differently to people than to animals, then it must have something to do with the soul, right?

Take the case of Terri Schiavo. The Catholics raised an outcry over this. Their position is that it’s immoral to commit any kind of euthanasia because it’s God who should decide when someone dies.

I was raised in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (which is pretty big in this area). The only newspaper article I read that quoted an LCMS pastor must have found the wrong guy, because he tiptoed through the tulips. The official position of the LCMS (if I recall confirmation class correctly) on euthanasia raises a distinction between active euthanasia and passive euthanasia. Active euthanasia is what got Dr. Jack Kevorkian into the news—administering lethal treatment. The LCMS says this is wrong for the same reason the Catholics say all euthanasia is wrong, because it usurps God’s role in deciding when people should die. Passive euthanasia, on the other hand, is what happened to Terri (or rather her brain-dead body). It’s allowing a person to die of natural causes by removing or failing to administer life support. The LCMS says this is not immoral, because it’s not usurping God’s role. In fact, you might find some LCMS pastors who would say that giving “extreme” life-saving measures is usurping God’s role in life and death.

I have come to the conclusion that both churches are wrong on this issue. Why? Perhaps this has something to do with the reason many people think that God is cruel, or that there can’t be a god because he would have to be a cruel god. God doesn’t kill people! If you believe that he does, you seriously need to rethink your theology and your relationship with God, because Christianity doesn’t make any sense at all if you think God is going around killing people. (By rethinking it, I don’t mean abandoning your faith, of course, but rather seriously considering my view.) Death is a natural result of sin, in Christian theology, and God has nothing to do with sin—ergo, God has nothing to do with death.

(I’m going to e-mail this link to my pastor and see what he has to say about it. I’d hate to take a position when no one is around to champion the other side. It offends my lawerly view of the world.)

Next week: Euthanasia, part 2—I might quote you, link to you, maybe even change my position, and talk about pragmatic concerns.

And now, my usual command: Discuss!


  1. I would have to agree. It is clearly wrong to force someone to suffer from a terminal illness for a year or so- why can't they die with dignity? Also the "God decides when someone dies argument" is surely flawed, as otherwise how could we possibly save peoples lives? Or for that matter administer the death penalty, although I fail to remember the catholic position on that one (and me raised a catholic- the shame!). It seems a no-brainer to me that if someone wants their pain to end, and they will die soon anyway (or their quality of life will be reduced so much they might as well be dead), then we should allow that.

  2. Quick, knee-jerk-question.

    God has nothing to do with death, only life.

    Does it follow that keeping people alive is doing God's will?

    Another, knee-jerk.

    Who get's to decide what's happy? A three judge panel? A mother? A BFF or "Best-Friend-Forever"? (South park, anyone?)

    It seems as though you are allowing the "owner" of the animal to decide what is happy. What if you went home to visit and found out that your beloved pup has hanged (hung? :) himself?

    Your position of discounting God's position about life/death seems to advocate that suicide is not a sin.

    I will think through this and give a better response by monday. But, if you want to answer my knee-jerks, it would help the process along a bit.

  3. Moise:
    As to the first question, I think a useful analogy would be to think of a person's state as alive or dead affected by a kind of inertia. Sin is friction or any other kind of intervening force, and God is only what put life into motion, not that he keeps pushing it. So keeping someone alive is not necessarily doing God's will, but perhaps usurping his role.

    The second question is a good one, but I have gotten into the habit of splitting these into more than one post so the posts don't end up so long-winded like the post on Roe v. Wade. That was more what I intended for discussion next week.

    And Raider is already hung. But your point is well-taken. Is suicide a sin? Come to think of it, I can't recall ever reading in the Bible that it is. Of course everyone takes murder to include also self-murder (if that's what it is). But does it necessarily? A very good question that I don't think I'm yet prepared to answer.

  4. Choosing suicide & choosing euthanasia are not 'whims' made capriciously. They are judgements made in extreme anguish. How can we standing on the outside, assume any diff.?
    On euthanasia; If God in infinite wisdom gives mankind the power to help & extend life, why can't God also give man the power to end a suffering life?

    On suicide; Who are we, so arrogant to judge? If suicide is a sin, it is the pain that the suviviors suffer that make it so. Do we want to heap more judgement on top of that? It's already illegal, for crying out loud.

    The death penalty. That's a hard one. My own brother shot & killed someone when he was thirteen. Considering his age & other things I know, the death penalty would be wrong.
    But, the green river killer? My gut instinct says, "Kill him."
    But, that is why we have jurys, judges, lawyers, etc... right, Kelly?

  5. l>t, that is a very insightful statement. I think the Language Guy is right about you--you are bright.

  6. BTW, I talked to my dad about this over the weekend. He seems to believe that with the abundance of different pain killers that euthanasia of humans is no longer necessary. I would add that this doesn't hold true if you take into account economic factors, but if you do take those into account then you are opening a very scary can of worms.

    Also, I've been directed to this article which tries to explain the Christian opposition to euthanasia, but I don't know if it fully responds to my arguments.

  7. Yeah, the points made in that article were pretty weak, as far as I'm concerned.

    The main argument that this article poses is something along the lines of

    1. Life and Death are in God's hands
    2. We are not God
    Therefore, we should not have control over when someone dies.

    But doesn't this also mean that we should not attempt to EXTEND someone's life either? Of course the church would never say something like that. If they did, it would lose them members and influence.

    Another argument the article poses is that "Illness and death are a tragic part of life in a sin-sick world." I don't entirely see the relevance of this argument. Of course death and illness are tragic, but everyone goes through these things. Using the logic posed in this argument, I would conclude that since everyone dies, the only thing that would make the illness and death of a loved one LESS tragic is to lessen the length of the illness. In fact, this argument could be extended to show that abortion would be the most humane thing to do to someone, since it would take out all of the "tragedy" except for the tragedy of death.

    The article further declares "and we must fight them hard—as Jesus fought them hard." Of course this is totally off the mark. Maybe I'm wrong here, but as I recall, Jesus did not fight his suffering and death - he accepted it. If He wanted to, He could have run away from the people who wanted to kill Him, but He didn't. It doesn't sound to me like He fought death at all. So again, this says to me that God doesn't want us to attempt to extend our lives.

    The article did pose some very good practical and ethical concerns on the issue, though, including "the fear that base motives such as financial gain will interfere with the family decision-making process and lead to what is essentially sanctioned family murder of the old" and "based on historical experience, that political leaders will take over the power to kill the infirm and sick and use it to cut the government's medical expenses or advance some kind of perverse vision of the common good." Now these two arguments are valid in my opinion, as well as a few others not mentioned in the article. But these are mostly practical concerns, not religious ones.

    I think that if the person in question is legitimately suffering, and they will never again be able to be healthy and happy with friends and family, then if the person says they want to die (so the concerns such as the government and financial things no longer really apply), why do they not have that right?

    I am very interested to hear what your pastor had to say about this.

  8. I haven't heard from him yet. It's quite possibly that he's very busy, and lots of people were talking to him after church so I didn't get a chance.

    Also, Khorbin, I'm impressed by your response to that article. It's exactly what I would have said, so maybe the old inside joke is true.

  9. Not an argument with your position on euthanasia (although I think your logic and Biblical understanding is off on the matter) but a thought on your God doesn't have anything to do with death statement...I serve a God who has many attributes, yes He has grace, mercy and love and wants the best for His people but He is also Just and the Judge of all man. He has nothing to do with death? Then what about Annanis and Saphirra? (SP?) That was all God...the lied (sinned) and that leads to death...that is God's justice...when we sin, we deserve nothing less...thankfully we have grace that saves us through our faith in Christ as God's Savior to mankind. Just wanted to open the discussion

  10. Interesting point. I'm not sure about the example you posit, so I'll take Sodom and the city that I don't know how to spell. (Perhaps this is what you meant?) God indeed has many attributes, but God in the Old Testament had different goals in order to make clear his utter distaste for certain kinds of behavior. And I cringe at your calling something God's justice because of sin. I'm going to use another physics analogy: gravity. We are all falling because of sin. It takes God to keep us from falling (and take us into heaven) but his hand is waiting only at the point of death.

    That said, your response is a good one, and I may have to respond more later after thinking about it a bit more.

  11. Saying that (sin leading to death) is God's justice may be a little bit of a stretch (I was actually having to finish the post quickly before a meeting and rushed it...sorry), but the idea I was trying to convey is simple that sinning is punishable by death...that is laid out for us in the Bible (Romans 3:23). Just wanting to clarify!

  12. According to the story, Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, not from the Tree of Life. Since the ole Schizo Gardner (let US do this and let US do that) prevented them from eating of the latter as well (that little valentine candy angel with the big hot knife), they did not become immortal.

    Which implies they were mortal to begin with.

    I've sometimes also seen nonsense about reproduction not being part of the Original Master Plan, but if not, why does ole Tater (I yam that I yam) tell the no doubt frisky young things (less than a day old!) to make like rabbits (MULTIPLY!) and later mention fathers and mothers before A&E done gone and doed the Bad Thing? (Gen. 2:24)

    We choose the stories we want to live by. I prefer mine to have a little bit more internal consistency.

    As for Raider, when the time comes, forget your head ... particularly your mouth filled with the aftertaste of Great x Million-Grandma Eve's indiscretion.

    And follow instead your heart.

  13. After reading IbaDaiRon's comment maybe we should be advocating mandatory suicide rather than merely tolerating assisted suicide.

  14. Nevermind...It seems I've been a victim of "troll-baiting"...

    My bad. He's just like international news. If we don't watch it, it'll go away. (Thank you Colbert Report).

  15. Actually, Moise, I probably won't. Unless I get bored. (Not in the sense of not getting the "attention I so crave", either.)

    But I suppose that first was just another knee-jerk response?

    I do apologize to y'all for letting a crapful day on this end yesterday result in a "righteous atheist" ventfest.

    My point is that everything dies, from bacteria and pets to stars and planets and probably our entire universe itself. To pin all of that on the action (choice) of one mating pair of hairless primates (whoops, I'm starting again) makes no sense to me.

    Even if our bodies as wholes were immortal, the individual cells that compose them would still have to divide and grow and eventually die, or we would never be able to heal from injury. Unless of course you want to wander off into complete unreality and assume that God would have made every cell to rejuvenate and protect every human being from harm?

    And what would have powered those immortal and indestructable humans? What are fruit and vegetables in most cases but "plant babies"? We consume Life to live. Death was always part of the plan. There is no blaming or excusing God for it; that's the way it is.

    For all our progress in medical technique and technology, there is still only so much that we can do. I for one want nothing to do with any god that would condemn someone for easing the final pain of a loved one or damn someone who chose to end their own suffering.

  16. Moise: "Mandatory Suicide" is a Slayer song from the album South of Heaven (1988). And it's a good one too.

    Ib: I don't think God damns anyone. We damn ourselves. And I don't think it has anything to do with any particular sin, but rather a state of being sinful. That said, I think the conclusion I have come to is that "easing the final pain of a loved one or . . . end[ing your] own suffering" are not sinful. As to your statements about the pre-Fall world, I don't think that I can answer those. I'm not convinced that the better portion of Genesis is not allegory, and I'm not prepared to separate what is from what isn't. But I imagine that replacement of dead cells would have been a part of it, and that tigers didn't prefer to eat cantaloupe rather than antelope.

  17. When saying, sinning leads to death the death referred to is a spiritual death...not see how this death plays out see Revelations...

  18. I don't think God damns anyone. We damn ourselves.

    And guns don't kill people, people kill people. Come on, you can do better than that. God set the stage, God rigged the deck; he doesn't get off that easily.

    Have you been around little children much? The surest way to get them to do something is to tell them NO. What were Adam and Eve but children?

    Here's my take on the allegory: primal hominids began to leave the dim world of the animal mind and develop the self-aware, introspective variety of consciousness we call human. They began to classify the world around them into categories and represent those categories in their gradually expanding language. Good was the day and warm and fresh fruit and meat and a mating partner. Evil was dark and cold and pain and fear and dying and the sorrow of loss. Eating the fruit was an inevitable consequence of our evolution. (Otherwise we'd still be dumb animals.)

    Higher primates live in social hierarchies which are never completely static but characterized by a continual jostling for power. Members of a group are always testing the limits, pushing the envelope until they precipitate a crisis (confrontation) which either overturns or reaffirms the existing order.

    As was/is father (usually) in the family and the chief in the tribe, so God was/is the alpha male for the world. Disobeying even the commands of God is just what we do naturally. What you call a "state of sinfulness" is our natural condition. This is what we do, this is who we are.

    The apparent prevalence of sin and evil in the world is, to me, simply a result of focus.

    And whether or not it is clear to you,
    no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
    With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
    it is still a beautiful world.

    (And remember, Genesis isn't the only part of The Book that is allegorical or non-historical. Omnia cum grano salis!)

  19. Sorry for double-posting.

    (I've always admired the strength of conviction demonstrated by anonymity. In contexts like this, it always makes me wonder if Ho Pneuma Hagion is gracing us with Its Presence. Do you think God has broadband? Infinite bandwidth? Never mind.)

    Revelations is another one of them allegorical thangs. But that's just my opinion.

    Spiritual death has always been an interesting concept in the sense of there being a "place" God can or will not go or be: "cannot" is a problem for omnipotence, "will not" for being all-merciful.

    Oh, sorry, that was Allah, not Yahweh.

    To paraphrase Rab Josh (which is itself a ticket to limbo, right?) completely out of context,

    If ye then, being evil, know how to [do good] unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven [do] good things to [His]?

    In other words, God is saying, "Fine, reject me if you want. Just remember there's no coming back!"

    Thank goodness that we (who are evil) can at least always change our minds and welcome back our prodigal children.

    (I'm probably starting to come across like one of the Seans Twain over on The Language Guy, so I'll go away for a while.)

  20. I guess nobody studies Greek anymore. Or else you're being too polite to point out my slip-up. (Or just ignoring me! : )

    I've been trying to brush up on my Hebrew lately, so maybe I was influenced by the equivalent Ruach haQodesh? Whatever.

    Either way, the proper article is To not Ho; neuter, not masculine. FWIW.

  21. Hello:

    I popped over from the Crystal Clear web site when I saw your comment. She had rented a billboard from me that caused me to write a Terri Schiavo post. She didn't actually leave a comment, but I get the impression she wasn't happy with her rental (she did get 23 visits though).

    You may wish to read Quality of Life

    P. Del Ricci - Dark Glass