WE NOW have increasing public discussions on dying, a topic that is usually not the subject of social conversations. But two things have changed that. Firstly, the rapid development of medical science and technology poses novel dilemmas for patients, and their families and physicians. Secondly, the erosion of long-held moral foundations and the rise of individualistic ideas of right and wrong have introduced intense debates on how society should proceed in this “brave new world”.
The search for cures for our diseases has been a noble task and has resulted in better health in humankind as a whole. But there are still many diseases that are incurable – some can be treated as long chronic illnesses; others quickly lead to terminal conditions. In the case of terminal illness, the most medicine can do is to delay death or try new cures on an experimental basis.
The search for cures has now also become a commercially profitable exercise. New experimental drugs, surgical techniques and medical treatments are always being tried to push the boundaries of our powers to cure.
When one is diagnosed to suffer from an incurable and terminal illness, there are people who will find every means possible to find a cure or to prolong their life.
Some desperately hold on to life, clutching at every straw offered. They travel and try whatever “cure” that is available whether by doctors or charlatans.
Commercialised medicine and the development of a wide range of alternative medicines do not help the situation. At the same time, doctors attempt to prolong the patient’s life using new tools and techniques. With increasing costs of medical treatment, this can be a grossly expensive but futile business.
It is for this reason that there are some people who are horrified by the thought of having their lives prolonged by extraordinary medical means – in a situation when death is imminent and unavoidable. Along with this, there are also others who, in the context of the pain and hopelessness of terminal illness, prefer to end their lives earlier through euthanasia. They consider it their individual right to make such a decision.
These situations have led to our current discussions about advance medical directives and euthanasia. In the process the discussion has at times become quite confusing and there is a need to be clear about the issues.
Advance medical directives (AMD), which were introduced in Singapore in 1996, enable individuals to indicate that should they suffer from terminal illness, certified by a panel of doctors, they should be spared being given extraordinary medical treatment. They would still be given palliative care (e.g. medicine to reduce pain and treat symptoms) and food and nutrients.
The idea here is to allow the patient to die naturally without “heroic” medicine.
Euthanasia (which means “good death”), on the other hand, involves speeding up the death of a person suffering from terminal illness. This is achieved either Through killing the patient directly (by administering a drug) or indirectly (withdrawing medical support and food).
This can be done by request from the patient, or by decision of the doctors or others. In short, the AMD, in its present form, seeks not to prolong life unnecessarily using extraordinary medical measures, while euthanasia seeks to shorten life.
Therein is the difference. From the Christian perspective, AMD is acceptable while euthanasia is not.
EUTHANASIA contravenes the sixth Ecommandment: You shall not murder (Ex. 20:13). We do not have the right to take our life or someone else’s life, because our lives belong to God our Creator. Our days are numbered by Him. To allow for euthanasia is to open ourselves to societal decline and the loss of human dignity. It would lead to the growth of two dangerous fallacies upon which euthanasia is based.
Firstly, it has to do with the “cure or kill” ideology. Try to cure the patient using medicine, but if the patient cannot be cured, then it is acceptable to kill him (or let him take his life). If this way of thinking is allowed to take root, it will grow into other monstrosities.
Society should instead cherish a “cure or care” mindset. That is to say, if we are unable to cure patients, then we must care for them compassionately.
Even in terminal illness, patients can be cared for through palliative medicine.
Most people become depressed in such situations because of their pain or Loneliness. However, through caring palliative medicine (which can help the patient in his pain), and loving care provided by caregivers, a person in such conditions can die with dignity and hope.
When euthanasia becomes an easy way out, then it can become a convenient way of “disposing” of terminally ill patients whom society and families may not have the compassion or time to care for. That would be disastrous for any society.
The second ideology is that death is better than suffering. Avoid suffering at all
costs. Such an ideology fails to understand the redemptive effects of suffering (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16-18). We should not put ourselves or others to death just because we aresuffering. Moreover, in terminal illness, palliative medicine exists that can reduce physical suffering and pain to make it as comfortable for patients as possible.
In summary, euthanasia (which seeks to shorten life) in whatever form is contrary to biblical teaching. AMD, which seeks to avoid the unnecessary prolonging of life by choosing not to be treated with extraordinary medical means when one is dying, Is acceptable. But if there are any changes made to the current form of AMD, then it is necessary to ensure that the original aims and safeguards are preserved, and that AMD does not become a backdoor for euthanasia to slip in.
How we die is important. Most people want a good death, often meaning a comfortable death. But it is more important to wish for a “holy death”, a term introduced by the 17th century English bishop, Jeremy Taylor. A holy death is in reference to God; it has to do with our trust of and faithfulness to God even as we die.
John Wesley who read and admired Taylor, in his own dying breath, declared: “The best of all is, God is with us.” That’s the spirit we learn from Jesus who on the cross entrusted Himself to His Father by praying: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” A good death, as Paul wrote in Phil. 3:10, is to know Christ and to become “like him in his death”.