Church Groups, Individual Believers Differ on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

A proposal released by the Commission on Assisted Dying in England and Wales last week that suggested assisted suicide should be made legal, came under heavy scrutiny by the Anglican Church, and research reveals that almost every major Christian denomination is against euthanasia and assisted suicide. Individual believers, however, have expressed divergent viewpoints on the controversial issue. 

The Commission on Assisted Dying, chaired by former justice secretary Lord Charles Falconer, recommends allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who wish to die and have less than 12 months to live. The patient would have to be over the age of 18 and not deemed to be mentally impaired. The approval of two independent doctors would also be required.

The Church of England came out to condemn the proposal right away, with the Rt. Rev James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle, who speaks on behalf of the church on healthcare topics, declaring on the Church of England's website:

“Put simply, the most effective safeguard against abuse is to leave the law as it is. What Lord Falconer has done is to argue that it is morally acceptable to put many vulnerable people at increased risk so that the aspirations of a small number of individuals, to control the time, place and means of their deaths, might be met. Such a calculus of risk is unnecessary and wholly unacceptable.”

In a March 2009 paper titled Assisted Dying/Suicide and Voluntary Euthanasia, the Anglican Church acknowledges the complexity of these issues, but concludes:

“Suffering may be met with compassion, commitment to high-quality services and effective medication; meeting it by assisted dying/suicide or through voluntary euthanasia, however well intentioned, is merely removing it in the crudest way possible.”

Other Christian denominations also have a firm stance against euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Sarah Kropp, Communications Director from the National Association of Evangelicals shared with The Christian Post a link to its 1994 Termination of Medical Treatment document, which states: “Human beings are made in the image of God and are, therefore, of inestimable worth. God has given people the highest dignity of all creation. Such human dignity prohibits euthanasia, that is, actively causing a person's death.” The statement also explores the moral question of using life-support systems, stating “that in cases where patients are terminally ill, death appears imminent and treatment offers no medical hope for a cure, it is morally appropriate to request the withdrawal of life-support systems, allowing natural death to occur.”

From the Methodist point of view, a statement on euthanasia published on the Methodist Church in England's official website reads:

“The Christian conviction is that ‘the life of men and women bears the stamp of God who 'made man in his own image' (Genesis 1:27). This is the source of our basic dignity and it is the biblical basis for the sanctity of human life. What God has given, we should not take away. Death is an event marking a transition rather than a terminus. We are called to use all God's gifts responsibly and to find in every situation the way of compassion. This compassion can be shown in energetically developing better methods of care for the dying. The hospice movement has made an invaluable contribution here.”

A Southern Baptist Convention declaration on the Resolution On Euthanasia And Assisted Suicide made in June 1992 reads:

“Be it further RESOLVED, That we reject as appropriate any action which, of itself or by intention, causes a person's death; and

“Be it finally RESOLVED, That we call upon federal, state, and local governments to prosecute under the law physicians or others who practice euthanasia or assist patients to commit suicide.”

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington D.C., has confirmed that Orthodox churches are also opposed to euthanasia. An article addressing the topic on its official website reads:

“The Orthodox Church teaches that euthanasia is the deliberate cessation of human life, and, as such, must be condemned as murder. However, the headlong progress of contemporary medical technology and the various means of artificially sustaining life require that theologians make more precise the Church's approach to the problem of euthanasia and "the right of a person to put an end to his life.”

The statement adds, however: “The problem of maintaining the life of the gravely ill needs an individualised approach – a careful and round discussion in each instance with the relatives of the ill person, his physician and spiritual director. ... The Church makes a precise differentiation between euthanasia and the decision not to use extraordinary means to maintain life in those instances when a person is hopelessly ill.”

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official text of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church published on the Vatican's website, first published in France in 1994, states:

“Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.

“Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.”

The Cathechism notes, however: “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of 'over-zealous' treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted.”

A Gallup Poll from 2007 examining attitudes toward assisted suicide among general church-goers in the United States revealed that a significant percentage of believers support the practice, despite the viewpoints of most denominations' governing bodies. 

When asked about the “moral acceptability of doctor-assisted suicide,” 23 percent of respondents who attend church weekly called the practice acceptable; 45 percent of those who attend almost weekly/monthly, and 67 percent of those who seldom/never attend said the doctor-assisted suicide is acceptable. 

Another question asked if doctors should be legally allowed to assist a patient living in severe pain from an incurable disease to commit suicide, 35 percent of weekly church-goers said doctors should be allowed to help; 52 percent who attend almost weekly/monthly agreed, and 73 percent of those who seldom/never attend church also agreed. 

Finally, the word “suicide” was removed from the question all together to read: “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient's life by some painless means if the patient requests it?” Almost half – 47 percent of people who attend church weekly – said it should be allowed, with 70 percent who attend almost weekly/monthly and 84 percent of those who seldom/never attend agreeing.

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