Euthanasia and Unbearable Suffering: Moral Perspectives

AUSCP NewsJim Bacik

The issues of euthanasia are complex and emotionally charged.  In the U.S., where each state can decide about legalizing assisted suicide, some 40 state legislatures have resisted strong pressure to provide their citizens with that option.  One of the strongest and most emotional arguments for legislation is the unbearable suffering some seriously ill and dying patients experience.  For example, a retired family doctor shares the story of his 25-year-old mentally competent daughter who was blind and suffered intensely from a 17-year battle with leukemia.  At one point, she asked him to give her enough sleeping pills so she would go to sleep permanently.  He did not do so because at that time it was not legal anywhere in the U.S. Reflecting on the experience, he now says that with a legal option, he would have given her a lethal dose as an act of love and compassion.  Such poignant stories multiplied many times over, some familiar and personal, form a highly emotional argument for legalizing assisted suicide.

Christianity, which celebrates the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the key event in all human history, provides us with a distinctive perspective on human suffering.  We are persons with infinite longings and finite capabilities who cannot avoid emotional, mental and spiritual suffering.  We are inspirited bodies and embodied spirits who are subject to physical pain, debilitating illness and the diminishments of disease and age.  As theists, we believe in a God of compassion and mercy who is on our side in the great struggle against suffering and evil.  As Christians, we believe in Jesus Christ, who transformed suffering, conquered death and opened up the possibility of salvation for all people.  Faithful persons in our tradition talk about joining their sufferings with the crucified Christ and of befriending death as a passage to eternal life with the Risen Christ.  Others say they offer their sufferings each day for a specific person or cause.

Although modern medicine and Hospice care have done wonders to alleviate and manage the suffering of so many dying persons, we are still faced with the stark fact of unrelieved, unbearable suffering of fellow members of the human family.  We can imagine some possible responses: admiring the heroic persons who persevere to the end; being grateful for those who offer their suffering as part of their care and prayer for others; having compassion for those overwhelmed by pain who choose suicide, while entrusting them to the gracious God, who is infinitely merciful and all loving; praying for suffering patients and compassionate physicians faced with immense suffering and heart wrenching decisions; avoiding glib talk and easy answers to perplexing and profound questions about intense human suffering; asking God for the courage and strength to accept our own unavoidable sufferings whatever they may be.  In some circumstances, it seems wise to maintain a reverent, humble, prayerful silence before the mystery of evil in the form of intense human suffering.

What are my thoughts and feelings about euthanasia as a solution to unbearable suffering?

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