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Last Chance to Subscribe and Receive JCS I/3!

The Journal of Christian Studies volume I issue 3 is at the printer! Be sure to subscribe today to receive this issue.

As a reminder, here is a list of our contributors, followed by an excerpt from Gilbert Meilaender's article:

J. Todd Billings (Western Theological Seminary), "The Art of Dying."

M. Todd Hall (Center for Christian Studies), "Let's Talk About Funerals."

Stephen D. Lawson (Lipscomb University—Austin Center), "Will They Know We Are Christians by Our Deaths?"

Gilbert Meilaender (Valparaiso University), "You Are Not Your Own: Christians and Euthanasia."

Mary L. Vanden Berg (Calvin Theological Seminary), "Dementia as Living Death and Defeated Enemy."

From Gilbert Meilaender, "You Are Not Your Own: Christians and Euthanasia":

In our culture today, discussions of euthanasia and assisted suicide are too often carried out in slogans that do not help very much. The clearest demonstration of this is the way different people appeal to the language of “dignity” in support of diametrically opposed viewpoints. So, for example, I might say that being kept alive in a condition I regard as degrading violates my dignity as a human being—and that enabling me to die when I wish would better recognize that dignity. But, from a very different standpoint, I might say that it is an affront to my dignity to suggest that my life would be less worthy were I to lose certain valued abilities and capacities. Clearly, those who hold either of these views will not find it easy to make their view—if not persuasive to everyone—at least intelligible to others.

My aim, therefore, is to probe some of the arguments offered in support of euthanasia, suggesting reasons why we should not find them persuasive. In order to do this, however, we need first to touch briefly on a different but related topic—namely, how best to care for those who are dying. Until quite recently our widely shared view of proper care for the dying had been based on a rejection of euthanasia. That rejection established a boundary: nothing should be done that was intended to cause death. We cannot emphasize too strongly, however, that this boundary did not create an obligation to do everything possible to keep a person alive. Refusing or withdrawing treatment in certain circumstances was both permissible and choice-worthy, even if, as a result, death came sooner than would otherwise have been the case. That result could be accepted so long as death was not the aim. After all, Christians distinguish suicide from martyrdom. Both the suicide and the martyr know that they will die because of choices they make; that is, the result of their choices will be the same. But what they do is not the same. The martyr neither aims at nor intends his death, though he accepts it as a result of his commitment to goods other than life.

Under what circumstances is withdrawing treatment permissible and even choice-worthy? Roughly speaking (though, of course, sometimes quite complicated in practice), it has been thought permissible to refuse or withdraw treatment if that treatment was either useless or excessively burdensome to the patient. If either of these is the reason for not treating, then we are not intending or aiming at the death of patients. We are simply caring for them as best we can, helping them to live well while dying. This is what, in one of the classic early works in bioethics, Paul Ramsey called caring (but only caring) for the dying. Caring even when we have given up attempts at curing.

Even if this results in a life that is somewhat shorter than it might have been, we are still choosing life—choosing to live free of useless or burdensome treatments while dying. Thus, death need not always be opposed and may at some point be accepted. Such care for the dying continues to respect the boundary line established by the prohibition of euthanasia.

Today, though, some wonder why we should leave that boundary in place—why, if allowing to die is permissible, intentional killing to relieve suffering should not also be permissible. There are, I think, two kinds of arguments in particular that are regularly offered in defense of euthanasia and assisted suicide. The first is an argument based on our belief in the value of individual freedom; the second is based on the value of compassion. Each deserves our attention in relation to Christian belief.


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