Physician assisted suicide is active voluntary euthanasia. It is active euthanasia because it employs means which intentionally cause the death of the patient. It is voluntary because the patient makes the choice. When one looks at the issue in terms of these distinctions two separate moral questions arise: 1) Is it morally appropriate for a Christian to request assistance indirectly causing his or her own death? 2) Is it morally appropriate for a Christian physician to comply with the wishes of a patient who makes such a request? What Christians say about issues of morality ought to be and usually is reflective of their fundamental faith convictions.
There are at least three of these convictions that appear especially relevant to the question of whether it is acceptable for Christians to seek a physician's assistance in committing suicide in the midst of extreme suffering. A fundamental conviction Christians have is that life is a gift from God, and each individual its steward. A primary responsibility is to honor God in one's living. Contemporary arguments for the "right" to assistance to commit suicide are based on ideas of each individual's autonomy over his or her life. Christian's cannot claim such autonomy; Christians acknowledge that they belong to God. Therefore, a decision to take one's own life thus appears to be a denial that one belongs to God.
A second conviction is that God does not abandon people in times of suffering. Christians express their faith in God's love by trusting in God's care for them. A decision to end one's life would appear to be a cessation of that trust. Pain may seem unbearable, life might seem no longer worth living, suffering may appear beyond relief. Suffering calls upon people to trust God even in the valley of the shadow of death. It calls on people to let God, and not suffering, determine the agenda of their life and their death.
A third conviction is that in the community of God's people caring for those who are dying is a burden Christians are willing to share. The whole Christian community must provide support for the individual sufferer and the individual caregiver who have determined that going on in the face of suffering is a faithful response to God. The Church cannot demand such courage by rejecting assisted suicide without at the same time providing the care that makes it possible to live with suffering.
Part of the Christian response to the public debate about assisted suicide is to create communities of care which reduce the likelihood people will choose physician-assisted suicide. One of the most common justifications offered for physician-assisted suicide is the stated desire that "I never want to become a burden to my family." However, the care offered by those who love us makes suffering possible to bear. A person's willingness to bear his or her suffering is an expression of trust in God. It is also an expression of trust that those who love them will care for them even in difficult times. A willingness to go on even in the midst of suffering offers those who love them the opportunity to care for them. Do these three convictions lead to the conclusion that Christians must never make the choice to take their own lives? At the very least, these convictions infer that to do so would be morally troublesome. Taking one's life appears to be a violation of some fundamental Christian convictions.
Proponents of physician-assisted suicide argue that people care for pets and animals who are in pain by "putting them to sleep," therefore, shouldn't humans do at least the same for their loved ones? Aside from the fact that animals and humans are treated differently in many ways, there are moral constraints and obligations arising from fundamental beliefs about responsibilities to God and to each other that define appropriate care.
One obligation is to eliminate the suffering of others with the constraint that people cannot eliminate the suffering by eliminating the sufferer. Why isn't eliminating the sufferer an appropriate part of medicine? The argument here is that it is neither a part of cure nor is it care. The refusal by medical care-givers to assist in a patient's suicide is a pledge that the caregiver will never give up on a patient, never cease active forms of care. It is a pledge by medicine to find more effective ways of eliminating pain, of providing emotional support, and of assisting the suffer to experience a "good death" that doesn't end the patient's life.
When we consider how Christian convictions influence a choice for assisted suicide, the primary concern is not to protect or deny peoples' rights, but to explain why Christians, given their convictions, are apt to see something as right or wrong. On the whole, Christians value the individual liberty that allows them to act on the basis of their distinctive moral commitments. However, a shared Christian commitment does not seem to be consistent with a choice to take one's own life, even under conditions of extreme suffering.
The above is taken from the pamplet "A Religious Response to Euthanasia" by Advocates for Better Care, 2340 Porter St., SW, P.O. Box 901, Grand Rapids, MI 49509-0901. (616) 530-2864.