Death and Dying in the Land of Paradise (part 3)

Previously I shared some thoughts about the inevitability of disease and death.  This raises the question of whether death should be hastened by means of physician assisted suicide or euthanasia.  After all, isn’t PAS an example of playing God?

It is common to hear the phrase “playing God” in a bioethical context, but what does it mean to play God?  Is it only when excessive technology is employed to achieve a desire result?  I have a few general opinions about what it means to play God.

In a very general sense, I think we play God when we make crucial medical decisions (i.e., decisions with moral consequences) without taking God into consideration.

Ironically, humans may play God by deliberately denying the proper use of technology to achieve good health.  In other words, good health may be hindered when individuals determine that no technology should be used.  For example, some sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions when these transfusions can achieve the advancement of health.  Blood transfusion is an example of technology used to save life; life is not being destroyed, manipulated or enhanced with this technology.  The endeavor to save life seems consistent with the biblical notion that good health is a worthy goal.  The denial of technology to save life has no biblical support; indeed, it appears contrary to Scripture.

We may play God when we apply the philosophy of “vitalism” to end-of-life decisions.  Vitalism,[1] in the context of this discussion, is the view that we have an obligation to extend life no matter what it takes.  Some individuals, even confessing Christians, seem to think that human life should be preserved at all costs.  But it is possible to play God by trying to force life-extending technology on an individual who is clearly in the dying process.  To play God is to attempt to extend life indefinitely when death is a necessary part of humanity.

In addition, technology used to extend life indefinitely in order to harvest organs may represent an attempt to play God.  Current technology and higher-death criteria represent an attempt to declare a person dead when death has not actually occurred, in order to remove the organs for transplantation.  On the one hand, it is vital to keep the cardiopulmonary functions of the body alive in order to maintain the health and usability of the organs.  On the other hand, it is crucial that an individual is truly dead before the removal of organs.   Thus, it is a question of whether to remove artificial respiration to allow complete and natural death, but at the same time ensure that the organs are not damaged so that organ transplantation is possible.  Higher-death criteria make it possible to play God in at least two situations: 1) to prematurely pronounce someone dead and remove artificial respiration in order to remove the organs for transplantation or, 2) to prematurely pronounce someone dead, but keep the body alive to maintain the health of the organs for future transplantation.  In both cases, one is playing God because it is not at all clear that higher-brain ‘death’ represents actual death.

We play God when we create or destroy innocent life in order to promote healthcare.  Many scientists view human embryonic stem cells to be the mother-lode of health care; it is claimed they offer the promise of healing, health and an endless supply of the mounting demand for human organs.  However, the success of stem cell technology should not be the decisive issue in the discussion.  If stem cell research requires the destruction of human embryos, and if human embryos are indeed innocent members of the human race with inherent rights, then human embryonic cell research is an immoral enterprise.  It amounts to the utilitarian practice of taking innocent lives for the benefit of others.  It forces embryos to become mere products to be used for unproven therapies.

Finally, we play God when we end life prematurely by doctor assisted suicide or euthanasia.  Death is inevitable, but nothing in Scripture indicates that those who suffer should hasten death.  Obviously, if a person doesn’t believe in God, then he isn’t going to worry about the accusation of playing God in these situations.  Indeed, frequently God is not allowed to be part of the discussion without the accusation of imposing one’s religion on others. On the other hand, a committed theist should take a more cautious approach about end-of-life decisions.  In short, to play God is to end life prematurely and intentionally.[2]

These are some of my thoughts about playing God.  What do you think?  Do you agree or disagree?

[1] Not to be confused with the “philosophy of vitalism,” the view that all living entities share in a life principle that cannot be reduced to material entities.

[2] The administration of morphine to relieve pain may have the double-effect of hastening death.  This is not an example of playing God because it should not be the intention of the physician to administer morphine to cause death.

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Gary Elkinschris audino Recent comment authors
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chris audino

Thank you for your insightful post Gary! I started a reply to you and, because of length, I decided I would just make it my post for the week… I would love to hear your thoughts and to have your help organizing my thoughts on the idea.