Dying With Dignity
By Mark Penninga (French version available below as an attachment)
Words can pack a punch. As such, they can be used for both noble and crafty purposes. Advertisers, political spin-doctors, and even Supreme Court judges know this well and take full advantage of the power of words. One example is the concept of dignity. Because dignity seems to be such a favourable word it is being used, and exploited, for purposes as far ranging as Hillary Duff’s latest pop album to the push for legalized abortion in third world countries. But the movement that has most exploited the concept of dignity is the political effort to legalize euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. The term “death with dignity” is being used by right-to-die advocacy groups because they know that associating dignity with euthanasia will soften the public perception of what they are really demanding– state condoned death.
As Christians, we are called to be a light in this dark world. The darkness is especially evident when our culture is demanding the right to die, even at the hands of the state. Being a light involves more than lobbying the government to consider the pro-life perspective (see September’s article “Euthanasia on the Horizon” for more information on how we can respond politically). It also means that we show our culture what it means to value life, even if our lives are subject to disease, loneliness, and frailty. In short, we must show our culture what true dignity is and how it can be best upheld without euthanasia, suicide, mercy killing, or any human attempt to end life’s difficulties through death. But this is no simple calling. Just because we value life at all stages does not mean that we have the answers to many difficult questions about what we can and cannot do to prolong life or speed up death. In this article, I will examine two very different views on what it means to die with dignity – the prevailing secular view contrasted with the Christian account.
The Secular Struggle with Dying
Our Western world has struggled with death and dying, especially since it abandoned its religious grounding in the age known as modernity (18th – early 20th Century). Modernity changed the sciences to Science (as if it alone carried authority) and relied on Science as the new god in which to put hope and to deal with the fear of death. Although the Western world is now considered postmodern, not much has changed in our feelings about dying and death. Billions of dollars are being spent on research in the hopes of finding life-preserving cures to combat disease. Reproductive technologies are leading the pack when it comes to pushing for new ways of finding eternal life without God. For years now we have been constantly reminded of its “ground breaking” discoveries with the human genome project, stem cell research, and cloning. But despite the hype, there is little to show for all the effort. The average life-span may be slowly increasing but the “extra” time on earth seems to get increasingly more miserable.
Delaying death does not make life better. A good example of this is the public awareness campaign that has been launched recently with advertisements warning the public about elder neglect. Our individualistic society is focussed on preserving our own lives, at the expense of looking at how we can enrich the lives around us. Those who cannot look after themselves (especially the elderly, the unborn, and the disabled) are quickly marginalized and neglected. I don’t know how an ad at the corner bus stop is going to combat this. It is a problem with much deeper roots.
A relatively recent Supreme Court case can help us understand what is causing our society to neglect the old, unborn, and infirm. If you read the article in last month’s Reformed Perspective titled “Euthanasia on the Horizon” you may remember how I described the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling on physician assisted suicide in the case of Rodriguez v. British Columbia. This case involved a lady named Sue Rodriguez who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease and wanted the legal right to have a doctor end her life. What is worth repeating in this article is that the Supreme Court bought into her argument that her disease was robbing her of her dignity. That is because they agreed that dignity is essentially the same thing as autonomy – the ability to make decisions for ourselves. Rodriguez believed that dying with dignity meant that she should be able to control the timing of her own death rather than be controlled by it.
Our secular world fears death because it is an unknown. Controlling the timing of our death is one answer to controlling death itself. As a result, it has chosen to call euthanasia and physician assisted suicide “death with dignity.” In reality, there is little dignity evident. There is no courage to brave the difficult life, no support from loved ones to be by their side through thick and thin, and no hope for a better future. “Death with dignity” is a politically-correct way of giving up on life and taking away the responsibility of others to care for those who are suffering.
A Biblical View of Dying
Even Christians, comforted with the realization that death is the beginning of an eternal life with God, often still fear death. After all, it seems to put an end to all that we love and care for, and replaces it with what is largely unknown. And even if we don’t struggle with the reality of death itself, we still face many questions about dying. For example, how much effort should be directed towards keeping an elderly person alive, even if they would be happy to be with the LORD? Does it make a difference whether this person is old or young? Is there ever a time to “pull the plug”?
The Bible is clear that humans have intrinsic worth because of God’s special relationship with us. Genesis 1 explains that He made us in His image which means that we reflect many of the attributes of God through our dominion over creation, our creativity, intellect, righteousness, and holiness (having been set apart from the rest of creation), to name but a few distinctions. In short, our dignity cannot be lost because of a disease which takes away our ability to make decisions for ourselves. Regardless of whether we are young or old, disabled or healthy, we must all be treated with dignity because we were all made by God. Even after the fall into sin and before the sixth commandment was given on Mount Sinai, God warned Noah “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” A Biblical view of human dignity realizes that we do not possess dignity because of our own worthiness. Our depravity is evident in everything we do and would surely have removed any dignity that we possessed. But even after the fall into sin we still possess the image of God, as made clear in the text just quoted. We have dignity only because God continues to have a special relationship with humanity. Christians should stand out from all others by reflecting who God really is to a world that is lost in darkness.
Applying this to death and dying, we can conclude that true death with dignity is a death that is in accordance with God’s will, including God’s timing. Being light-bearers, we don’t focus on a right to death, we instead focus on living rightly. This includes living in thankfulness and righteousness even while our bodies may be terminally ill and approaching death. A terminally ill person can live a dignified life that glorifies God no less than a healthy person. The breakdown of our bodies is a difficult burden to live under. But it is a burden that God has given to us, and He comforts us with His promise that He will never give us a burden too heavy to carry. Our Lord Jesus Christ also encouraged us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Glorifying God with our whole life does not mean that we make every effort to extend life as long as it is technologically possible. Doing so can be making an idol out of technology and only accepting it’s answers rather than God’s. With the powers of technology comes more responsibility to use it wisely. This applies just as much whether we choose to use technology or to turn it off. When we make these decisions we must realize that we are accountable to God with both our motivations and actions. It won’t be very helpful for me to provide specific directives for hypothetical situations because every instance is different. Instead, it will be more helpful to apply Biblical principles which we have to keep in mind in every situation:
Compassion – Galatians 6:2 urges us to “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” What are we doing to help those who are suffering? As family and friends, are we visiting the dying regularly and attending to their needs? We must be careful not to put burdens on others that they were not meant to carry, such as insisting on medical intervention when they are not physically or mentally able to go on.
Value – The doctrine of the image of God in man is meant to be lived out. How are we communicating to those who are terminally ill or who suffer from disabilities that they are valued by God and us? Do the terminally ill really want to die or do they feel like they are a burden and would rather end their life than make it difficult for others? We can show people that they are valued by spending time with them, learning from them, and thanking them for their lives.
Perseverance – Regardless of age, we are all called to accept the lot God has given us in life. We cannot look to technology to escape hardships by speeding up our death. Note that this is very different from using technology to make life more bearable, which is about compassion rather than giving up.
Hope – Many who are dying have no hope. We know the Good News that gives real hope. What are we doing to spread this good news to the sick and infirm who do not believe in Christ? How many of us visit strangers in senior’s homes or hospitals? Are we too comfortable in our own lives that we fail to reach out to others with the most important message that can be delivered?
Consideration – Although we would rather not consider how we want to be treated in the event of an accident, serious medical situation, or even death, we are being inconsiderate of our loved ones if we do not talk about it with them before something serious happens. Discuss specifics, such as what extent of medical intervention should be applied to you.
Note: When applying these principles, we must remember to do so from a distinctly Christian perspective. Concepts like compassion are easily twisted to make the case that euthanasia is a compassionate response to suffering. That is a humanist interpretation. A Biblical perspective of compassion is self-denying and demonstrates love for our neighbour over love for ourselves.
Those who are calling for a “death with dignity” are really looking for public approval of giving up on life. Since we have been given the Gospel of hope and its assurance that we are all valuable regardless of our physical state, we must combat the attitude that death is the compassionate response to those who suffer. The best way to combat it is to be a light. Let us show the world that we value life because we love the Giver of life.