Finding The Facts
End of Life Ethics
Definitions of key terms, concerning End of Life Ethics can be examined at an American site, which aims to educate doctors and medical therapists in some of the ethical implications of their work with terminally ill patients.
The Ethics of End of Life Decisions
A point of reference is ‘The Ethics of End of Life Decisions‘, a PowerPoint presentation on the Ethics Update site. This presentation situates the debate in the context of changing medical and social attitudes to illness and death, and introduces some of the philosophical issues which underpin social and legal decisions about euthanasia. It is concise and even-handed in its presentation of the issues and raises philosophical rather than religious arguments. For instance, it contrasts the utilitarian approach to euthanasia (which emphasises consequences and outcomes) with the Kantian approach (which emphasises the rights of the individual).
The social implications of legalising euthanasia are explored in an article on Santa Clara University’s Ethics site, headed ‘Legalizing Euthanasia: Medical Perspectives on Death and Dying’. Here two contrasting positions on the topic are presented. One from Derek Humphry puts a case premised on the point of view of a dying individual. Richard Gula argues that the question of euthanasia, especially legalised euthanasia, is primarily a societal, not an individual, question.
The Philosophy of Suffering
In the past century and a half there has been a gradual move away from a point of view that sickness, disability and even death are an ordinary, and even meaningful, part of life. Present-day perspectives emphasise the importance of ‘quality of life’, so that when ‘quality’ declines, life loses its meaning. This change in attitude underlies the debate about euthanasia. An article about the philosophy of suffering on the DyingWell site makes some important points about the ‘opportunities’ death and dying can present to the dying person and his/her family.
A BBC ethics site sums up the arguments and issues and includes a variety of perspectives from different faith traditions.
- Work through the steps suggested by the Framework for Ethical Decision Making. How does thinking through the issue in this way help in decision-making?
- According to Richard Gula, what are the implications for society of legalising euthanasia? How do you assess these?
- What part do pain, suffering and difficulty play in human life? In what way, if any, can these be said to be positive experiences?
Exploring Sacred Texts
The Ten Commandments, which form the core of the Judaeo-Christian moral code, clearly forbid the taking of human life (Ex 20:13), though history shows that both Judaism and Christianity have put provisos on that prohibition in relation to self-defence, war and legal punishment.
The deliberate killing of another is generally regarded as the most heinous of crimes. The section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which deals with the Fifth Commandment, sets out the Church’s understanding of this precept.
The Old Testament is relatively neutral on the issue of suicide. There are several references to its occurrence. Judges (Jg 9:53–55) concerns Abimelech, who asked his armour bearer to kill him after a woman had hit him on the head with a boulder, and he didn’t want it known that he was killed by a female! Judges (Jg 16:28–30) also describes, approvingly, Samson’s destruction of the Temple and, incidentally, of himself. Other significant Old Testament figures (for example, King Saul in 2 S 1:2–12) die at their own request, without censure from the sacred writers.
The Christian Scriptures refer to suicide twice: Judas’s despairing death in Matthew (Mt 27:3–5), and the Philippian gaoler who is going to kill himself when he finds his prisoners (Paul and friends) have escaped in Acts (Ac 16:27).
However, the most significant teaching of the New Testament in relation to euthanasia concerns the place and meaning of suffering in human life. It is through his passion and death that Jesus is glorified. In this context suffering is not pointless and to be avoided at all cost, but rather a means by which it is possible to grow. As St Paul says, we are ‘always carrying about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body’ (2 Cor 4:10). Jesus put his life in God’s hands, and Christians are invited to do the same. Nevertheless Christians may never impose suffering and the relief of pain and illness, originating in Jesus’ miracle of healing and restoration, has been a hallmark of the Christian story throughout its history.
Pain and Suffering
There are several articles that explore the role of pain and suffering in human life. One is on the popular American Catholic site, an another article, entitled ‘Modern Science on Pain and Suffering: A Christian Perspective‘ by Fr Daniel Helminiak, explores the relationship between science and religion in interpreting the pain and suffering of human beings.
- How would you explain the meaning of suffering according to Christian understanding?
- What are they saying about the relationship between the scriptures and ethics? Can we understand one without the other?
- Compare the scientific response and the religious response to human pain and suffering. Is there tension between them, or essential harmony?
Understanding the Catholic Tradition
By and large Catholic teaching on euthanasia and other life issues derives from the concept of natural law; that is, what our human nature and dignity demand in the way of moral decision-making and behaviour. Natural law is understood as a universal morality that governs everyone. It is, in some sense, an objective concept derived from the nature of human beings. It affirms the intrinsic value of human life, and puts limits on civil authority. It does not necessarily derive from a religious premise or from belief in God, though St Thomas Aquinas based much of his philosophical reflection on human nature upon it.
Natural Moral Law
It would be helpful to read the section on the Natural Moral Law provided in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and also to look at another interesting discussion about natural law, illustrated by examples from the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis.
It is important to understand clearly the concept of natural law. Those who feel that the Church has no right to demand that non-believers also be governed by Church teaching often do not realise that the Church’s arguments on such matters as euthanasia, abortion and human experimentation derive chiefly, not from religious tenets, but from philosophical convictions about what it means to be a human being.
Euthanasia is a comparatively modern moral dilemma, since it was not until modern times that the ability to sustain life in terminally ill patients has been generally available. However, the morality of terminating life deliberately has been debated since early Christianity. St Augustine spoke out against suicide (partly in response to an over-enthusiastic desire for martyrdom among early Christians). ‘Those who put an end to themselves may possibly impress people with their courage, but are not to be commended for sound judgment… There is more courage in a man who faces rather than flees from the storms of life.’
St Thomas Aquinas
St Thomas Aquinas, philosopher and theologian also argued against suicide on the grounds that it
- ruptures the natural instinct for care of self and self-preservation of the person,
- that it wounds the family and community of the person,
- that it usurps the rights of God over life and death.
Pope John Paul II
Over the past half century, popes and bishops have repeatedly spoken against euthanasia. Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical in 1995 entitled ‘Evangelium Vitae‘ (The Gospel of Life). This protests a variety of developments which threaten life. Paragraph 64 ff. deal specifically with euthanasia.
Other Catholic Points of View
A large collection of documents on the topic of euthanasia from the Catholic point of view can be found in the theological library of the Jesuit Spring Hill College.
- Do you think there is there such a thing as the ‘natural law’ inherent in every human being, or are all laws culturally arrived at?
- If there exists no universal ‘natural law’ for human beings, where do notions like justice, fair play, kindness, generosity, human rights come from?
- What do you think of the concept of a ‘consistent ethic of life‘? For example, does it make sense to be against capital punishment and nuclear weapon testing, but in favour of abortion and euthanasia (or vice versa)? Why or why not?
Current Catholic Context
Euthanasia and the Catholic Response
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, an American, wrote widely on the consistent ethic of life that all Christians are called to uphold. Though this deals less specifically with euthanasia, it calls on Christians to be consistent in defending life, whether it be opposing abortion, the death penalty, the arms race, nuclear war, embryo experimentation or euthanasia.
Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart
Watch Archbishop Denis Hart’s statement on Euthanasia ‘To the people of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne’ from 2010
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference have released a video exploring the Catholic stance on euthanasia in their God So Loved the World – Life Issues Series.
Explore the Australian Catholics Bishops Conferenced
Fr Ron Rolheiser
Fr. Ron Rolheiser is a Catholic priest who entered the novitiate of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and professed his First Vows in September 1966. Ordained to the priesthood in 1972, Ron continued his education, receiving a B.A. (University of Ottawa, 1969), B.Th. (Newman Theological College, 1973), M.A. (University of San Francisco, 1974), M.R.Sc. (University of Louvain, 1982) and Ph.D/STD (University of Louvain, 1982). During and after his own studies, he taught theology and philosophy at Newman Theological College, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Fr Ron Rolheister is also colomnist and and author and writes daily for his site ronrolheiser.com and has written on the Catholic Church’s view on euthansia in his article ‘Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Death’.
Dr Ray Campbell
Dr Ray Campbell is the Queensland Bioethics Centre director. He has written on Euthanasia and Palliative Care.
Respecting Other World Views
Not surprisingly, the Jewish view of euthanasia is not vastly different from the Christian approach. The BBC’s Ethics page on Euthanasia sets out the Jewish view very clearly and is useful on the ethical positions on issues around death of other major religious traditions. Ismar Schorsch’s address on the topic of euthanasiasets out the basis of traditional Jewish attitudes. .
Islamic teaching on end-of-life issues concentrates particularly on the love and courtesy owed to the dying person by his/her family, the sacredness of life and the profound conviction that God alone has rights over life and death. Islamic views on death and dying, life support systems and euthanasia offers a small library of documents on the Islamic approach as does a document on the IslamiCity site, Islamic views on human life, euthanasia-mercy killing, and suicide.
The brief abstract of the article ‘Killing: Karma and Caring: Euthanasia in Buddhism and Christianity’ by Damien Keown introduces the Buddhist view, and shows that, while the theologies of the religions of the world might differ significantly, their ethical positions are remarkably similar. the Buddhist position on Euthanasia while Buddhism and Medical Ethics: A Bibliographic Introduction explores some of the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhist thought about personhood in explaining the Buddhist approach to medical ethics, end-of-life issues among them. Also see Buddhism Euthanasia and Suicide on the BBC site.
Finally, it is of interest to look at some Aboriginal Australians’ viewpoint and to note the strong feelings of many Aborigines in response to the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act of 1995.
- Compare the attitudes to euthanasia of two of the great religious traditions. What beliefs and convictions about human life and the human person form the basis of their approach?
- What are the implications of the unanimity of world religious views about euthanasia for the debate about end-of-life issues in the West?
Examining Personal Experience
Identify and articulate your own response
- Find out the facts.
- Broaden your perspectives.
- Explore the sacred texts.
- Understand the tradition.
- Consider other world views.
- Review your personal experience
Use this app created by Santa Clara University to help you in your ethical decision making process: