This article appears in the Feb 2006 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

Reason Opposes Euthanasia

Michael Straiton

Natural law, the system of right and justice, is common to all mankind. Cicero wrote of "true law, right reason, diffused in all men, constant and everlasting". St. Paul reflected that "...what the law requires is written in their hearts..."(Rom. 2, 15). Thomas Hobbes defines the law of nature as "a precept of general rule found out by reason by which a man in forbidden to do anything which is destructive of his life...".

Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term "eugenics" in 1869 and proposed selective breading of humans. The eugenics movement gained support in America and Europe in the early 1900s as the euthanasia movement is doing today. A milestone on the road downhill was the publication in Germany in1920 of "Permission to Exterminate Life Unworthy of Life". The "unworthy" included the incurably ill or retarded, deformed children and the comatose. Killing was considered as "healing treatment" to be administered by physicians.

For the first time killing and healing were mixed together. The physician's loyalty was no longer to the individual patient, but to "society" or the State. Once the Nazis took over, medical graduates no longer took the Hippocratic Oath but an oath to the health of the State. The Nazis' euthanasia programme utilised drugs, then gas - the prelude of the Holocaust. This was opposed so vigorously by the Catholic and Protestant Churches that it was officially stopped, but went on all the same. Sadly, there was no organised opposition by the physicians in Germany as, of all the professions, medicine held the highest percentage of Nazis.

To those with no faith, life may have no meaning beyond itself. In a culture that worships youth, beauty and physical fitness, the elderly, ugly and disabled may be seen as revolting. By contrast, euthanasia is rejected in the traditional beliefs of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as it is considered to come within the prohibition of murder in the sixth commandment. Moreover, such killing is condemned almost universally by other World Faiths.

A multi-faith statement of the Religious Leaders Forum in Michigan of 5 July 1998 against assisted suicide affirms that "those who promote the last, fatal escape as a "right" should remember that such a "right" may quickly become an expectation and finally even a "duty" to die. We fear eventually that some individuals and families will be forced to put financial concerns above the needs of loved ones".

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states "Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick and dying persons. It is morally unacceptable" (para 2277). Pope John Paul II reflected in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae that "we see a tragic spread of euthanasia, disguised and surreptitious, or practised openly or even legally. As well as for reasons of misguided pity at the sight of the patient's suffering, euthanasia is sometimes justified by the utilitarian motive of avoiding costs which bring no return and weigh heavily on society". On 7 May 2005 Pope Benedict XVI stated that "freedom to kill is not a true freedom but a tyranny that reduces the human being to slavery".

The Episcopal Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000 condemned euthanasia as inadmissible. "Euthanasia is a double sin. It is murder on the doctor's part and suicide on the patient's. Christianity says that a human being belongs to God. Life is a god-sent gift. Committing suicide means voluntarily rejecting the gift that God has bestowed on you. There is a chance that some doctors will use euthanasia to cover up their negligence. There are cases 'when you cannot be certain that the patient is actually going to die. The church always believes in a miracle and prays for the recovery of the sick until the end".

The Statement of Baptists for Life on 14 March 2005 says that "a Christian should never recommend, or help with a suicide of an unsaved person because that would hasten the unsaved person's damnation and prevent any chance of repentance. It is an affront to God to take one's own life, both for reasons of his sovereignty but also because any murder is an attempt to annihilate his image in man (Gen 1: 26, 27)".

Islam is opposed to euthanasia. "If anyone kills a person, unless it be for murder or spreading mischief in the land, it would be as if he killed the whole people" (Qur'an 5.32). The conference on the Islamic Code of Medical Ethics at Kuwait in 1981 agreed that "mercy killing, like suicide, finds no support except in the atheistic way of thinking that believes that our life on earth is followed by void. The claim of killing for painful, hopeless illness is also refuted, for there is no pain that cannot be largely conquered by medication or suitable neurosurgery". The Islamic Code of Medical Ethics (1981 p 67) states that "it is the process of life that a doctor aims to maintain and not the process of dying. In any case, the doctor shall not take a positive measure to terminate the patient's life. Also food and drink and ordinary nursing care are not to be withheld as long as the patient lives ".

Judaism views suicide as one of the most serious sins with three exceptions: if one is being forced by someone to commit murder, or an act of idolatry or incest. Outside these cases suicide is forbidden and this includes taking part in assisted suicide. "The message of Judaism is that one must struggle until the last breath of life, until the last moment one has to live and rejoice and give thanks to the creator. (Jewsweek, March 2002)

Under Jewish law pain relief medicine can be given even though it may hasten death, as long as the dose is not certain to kill, and the intention is not to kill but to relieve pain. The Talmud relates the moving story of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion who was being burned alive by the Romans. His pupils urged him to end his suffering quickly by opening his mouth and inhaling the fumes. He replied "it is better that He who gave me my soul should take it rather than I should cause injury to myself".

For Buddhists, the first precept is to refrain from the destruction of life, including oneself. Suicide is clearly considered a negative form of action.

In Hinduism murdering one's own body is considered equally sinful as murdering another.

Most Hindus would say that a doctor should not accept the patient's request for euthanasia since this will cause the body and soul to be separated at an unnatural time. The result will damage the karma of both doctor and patient. When the soul reincarnated in another physical body it will suffer as it did before because the same karma is present. However, under various circumstances it is considered acceptable to end one's life by fasting (prayapavesha). In this there is no fear of acting on impulse and the intention can be reversed.

The Sikh Gurus rejected suicide (and by extension, euthanasia) as an interference in God's plan. Much of Sikh moral teaching is devoted to the care of others who are less fortunate. This suggests that the Sikh reaction to situations where people think about euthanasia would be to provide such good care that "mercy-killing" becomes an unattractive option.

John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Andrew's, sums up as follows: What we need at the end of life is not killing but care. The end of life should neither be delayed nor hastened. We did not our lives or their consequences, nor should we aim to escape them. What we can reasonably seek, however, is the support of others in allowing us to die and not be killed. Assisted suicide is an evasion and the thin end of a short wedge. The queue may begin with volunteers but it will soon include conscripts.

The determination of the euthanasia lobby to put legalised killing onto the British statute book is formidable. Now is the time for the great World Faiths, and all of goodwill, to unite in fighting and overcoming this outrage to humanity.

Dr. Michael Straiton KCSG is Associate Specialist in Ophthalmology, Moorfield Hospital.