The advancement of science and technology brings a plethora of moral and ethical dilemmas. The conversation surrounding the morality of medically assisted suicide is not new, but for Canada, there is deep concern about the country’s expansive new approach to providing access to medical assistance in dying for those suffering from mental illness.
In 2016, Canada first passed a law making those diagnosed with terminal illnesses eligible for medically assisted suicide. Since that time, more than 30,000 Canadians have died with medical assistance. In 2021, medically assisted death accounted for 3.3% of Canadian deaths that year, according to official data. To put it another way, roughly 10,000 people chose medically assisted suicide in a single year.
Even more troubling is that this law was pushed to be amended in 2019 to include eligibility for even those whose death is not reasonably foreseeable. There was a two year hold placed on opening this medical benefit to those suffering with mental illness while research and studies were being conducted, but those studies are set to conclude March 2023.
So, as you can imagine, many physicians, medical professionals, and Canadian citizens are weighing into the conversation as the deadline approaches.
Many are making the case for medically assisted suicide as a human right that should not be withheld from any group of people. They see this as a matter of giving dignity to someone who would choose to end their life.
Others are expressing their grave concerns about whether someone diagnosed with a severe mental illness is able to make a rational, reasonable choice regarding matters of life and elective death.
This expansion of medically assisted death will likely become a conversation in the United States as well. Currently, 11 states allow for medically assisted suicide: Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, California, and Montana. Similar to Canada, in 2021 the United States saw an increase in medically assisted suicide, which accounted for over 1,300 deaths in America.
It’s no secret that America is experiencing a mental health crisis, so the expansion of medically assisted suicide is a conversation that we should be thinking about seriously.
At one point, not too long ago, Christians fundamentally stood against any form of medically assisted death. I imagine that if a survey was conducted today, we would likely see a shift in Christians accepting medically assisted suicide. Nevertheless, as late as the 1990s, this was a very important political issue for American Christians. This conversation will likely soon begin to resurface in America, and Christians must first look to Scripture as a guide, rather than our culture.
How should Christians view medically assisted suicide?
To be able to engage this question, we have to first lay the groundwork for how to view death and suffering from a uniquely Christian perspective.
The Christian Understanding of Death
If you have ever lost anyone to death, you personally know how painful and unnatural it really is. Even though the reality of death is all our world has ever known, there is no denying how your soul knows that it simply should not be this way.
The Bible affirms this repeatedly. God never intended for us to live in a world full of death or the pain that comes along with it. The gospel insists death is an alien invader, a curse brought in from the Fall, and a strategy of an enemy spirit to crush God’s image-bearing humanity.
Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15: 24-26)
One day, Jesus will conquer death and it will no longer be a normal part of our lives.
We should not long for death.
Theologian Russell Moore describes death as a “violent act that tears at God’s original creational purpose of breathing life into man.” We should hate death, because it is not the way God intended for us to live.
Even as we understand death to be an enemy to God’s creation, we know there is a natural life cycle. To end this life cycle, whether through homicide or suicide, is to rob a person of what God intended for their life to be. For humanity to step into the life cycle of another person and bring about death before its intended time is to remove a person’s dignity.
Thus, to view death as an escape, or even a means of compassion, runs contrary to the gospel.
The Christian Understanding of Suffering
A biblical view of suffering runs contrary to our culture’s view of “autonomy as king.” A person’s individual right to choose is treated as an unquestionable truth that reigns supreme in every argument. It is the trump card.
However, there are many faults in pursuing autonomy at all costs. It has terrible effects on the whole of society, as everyone is only seeking what personally benefits them. Our understanding of truth becomes wrapped up in—and indistinguishable from—our personal opinions. We see no sustainable measure of truth but a fluidity of everyone choosing what their truth is.
But this isn’t actually how truth works. Truth is the actual state of a matter, an adherence to reality, an indisputable fact. It is not ever-changing from person to person.
Our cultural elevation of autonomy has distorted our view of suffering. If autonomy is of the highest importance, then we should desire to alleviate any and all suffering, regardless of its effects on anyone else.
I understand there is a spectrum of suffering, and we can’t take the conversation of those seeking medically assisted death lightly.
I can fully understand the tormented longing to end the suffering of a loved one. When my mom was dying from cancer, I could see the very real pain she endured. I felt helpless and knew there was nothing I could do to relieve her pain. The deep desire to seek any solution to end her pain and suffering was real. It’s easy to talk about the ethics of pain and suffering until you are watching your loved one die in pain and you long to end that pain for them.
Be that as it may, and as difficult as this is to bear, turning to physician assisted suicide goes against Scripture. In this life, we will experience pain and suffering of various kinds. Our desire to escape it, end it, or make it stop at all costs seems natural. But God speaks of suffering not as something we want to escape, but something he will be with us in.
Again, I know how incredibly difficult this is as you watch someone you love endure the hardest moment in their life. But, as Christians, we must hold onto the promises of our God.
When life becomes unbearable, we must turn to him and his strength to carry us through. This is not to mention the uncertainty of how life will end up if we choose to continue to live and what we will see on the other side of that moment.
As we enter into the conversation of medically assisted suicide, establishing the foundation of a biblical view on death and suffering is key.
God does not wish us to suffer needlessly. Nor does he place things in our lives just for the sake of suffering. But he promises to walk with us in those darkest of moments and bring goodness out of them. It’s a huge call of faith but one he will strengthen us for.
As we walk into these conversations, it’s important to understand and establish our foundations, but to never waver from love and care for someone contemplating physician assisted death.