Christianity and Physician-Assisted Suicide (2)

October 10, 2016

A few blogs ago, I discussed a Time op-ed that spoke of a Christian perspective to physician assisted suicide. Understanding that Christian is a hopelessly ambiguous term, I wanted to see if there was anything noticeably Christian about the op-ed.

My reflection at the time was that any advocate of PAS – Christian, religious, spiritual, or secular—could have written the piece. The only spiritual elements were prayer and having peace with the decision.

Last week Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post stating that as he grows older, he wants to lend his voice to the cause of “death with dignity.” What makes Tutu’s op-ed interesting to me is that he couches his conclusion in the language of Christianity: “In refusing dying people the right to die with dignity, we fail to demonstrate the compassion that lies at the heart of Christian values.”

The question, of course, is whether or not PAS is an adequate expression of Christian compassion to the dying? Tutu places the choice starkly: if you don’t allow PAS, people will suffer horribly. It is almost as if to him palliative care is a non-entity. He overlooks the historic Christian example of providing comfort and support to the dying, be it the believers of the early church or the contemporary hospice movement.

I have long agreed with those who think that love should be at the center of Christian ethics, because of its central place in the teaching of Jesus (see the “Two Commandments” of Matt 12:37-38). Tutu’s invoking of compassion as the Christian basis of PAS makes me think that further clarification of what it means to love is very much needed.

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Michael Knower, MD, HMDC
Michael Knower, MD, HMDC
4 years ago

I concur with Neil Skjoldal that assisted suicide is a topic that will not be going away, and that will require ongoing thought and discussion. We must begin by assuring that we are clear in the use of terminology. “Compassion” is derived from the Latin, meaning “to suffer with.” We come alongside the sufferer, promising and determining to not abandon him, regardless of the often unexpected paths the suffering may take. “Dignity” means something deeper than seeking to sanitize the dying process with three grams of Secobarbital. Archbishop Tutu asserts that “terminally ill people have control over their lives,” then asks, “[S]o why should they be refused control over their deaths?” Was Jesus mistaken? Can we in fact chose to make any given hair black or white? And what are we to make of the author of our faith who accepted the cup he prayed would pass him by, knowing the suffering he would endure in the process?
If we are to place the discussion in a truly Christian context, we must needs move beyond conceiving of our story as merely invoking the name of God as a means for our pursuit of personal comfort and convenience.

Mark McQuain
Mark McQuain
4 years ago

Thanks, Neil, for pointing out Desmond Tutu’s op-ed. I agree with you and Dr. Knower’s comments.

As I have stated before, I think physicians are the worst choice by a patient, in particular, or society, in general, to be an agent of “assisted suicide”. We are trained to avoid killing our patients and practice patterns that avoid harm. If society wants this service, a separate profession should be created to hone this particular skill set.

The added advantage of removing the act of assisted suicide from the medical profession and placing it in a separate profession is that it clarifies the debate as to whether the latter profession’s sole activity could be done in a Christian context.

Gregorio H. Marin
4 years ago

Looking beyond the distressing disguise of suffering, hospital workers meet Christ in every room we visit. We are health care workers and witness of life and faith. Often we shine a light where neglected “small things” including people at the end were tossed away. There we notice the beauty in others, fostering a spirit of love, understanding life and sharing at the end of it.

Palliation of life at the end aims at moderating the intensity of death. Easing symptoms of terminally ill patients.

Now impending death for patients suddenly have a preamble. Now a suffering person is empowered to swing back at the dint of importunity abruptly brought to them by disease trajectories.

The seal of appropriately given palliative care brings peace and love to our health care world. Hasten, or medically assisting a demise is an unfriendly way to return to God the gift of life. Just like we return unwanted mail. The ever evolving science of mitigating pain continually changes our understanding of suffering. However, compassionate care must not be fuel by fear of an uncomfortable passing; compassionate care must remain the best expression of grace for life at the end.

Death with dignity is the goal standard of palliative care. If we believe God still is in control and health care workers act as witnesses we are not to become like the man standing off the street passing on judgment in wicked ways. At the end of the day justice will call all of us to meet Christ where he was neglected and tossed away. Life doesn’t need assistance to be ended; life is as God created it, an act of love not to be return with swiftness.

Certainly, I most agree with you Neil!