“Let those who seek death with dignity beware, lest they lose life with dignity in the process.”
—C. Everett Koop, MD
In July of 1999, David Satcher, Surgeon General of the United States, warned that suicide had become one of America’s most pressing public health concerns.
In his 2016 book, Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, Wesley J. Smith, Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, reports that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, with more than 41,000 reported in 2013. It was during that time that there was a growing, pro-suicide mentality fueled by a burgeoning suicide advocacy. No longer is suicide a cultural taboo. It is now being promoted as a legitimate option for those who have been persuaded that “death with dignity” is better than their current state.
The book Final Exit by Derek Humphry, co-founder of the Hemlock Society (renamed Compassion and Choices), was a best-seller when it was first published in 1991. It is still immensely popular with readers all over the world. Smith relates that some groups today sell plastic suicide bags with Velcro sewn around the opening so that it fits snugly around the neck. Smith purchased a suicide bag from an assisted suicide organization for $32, plus $10 for “easy-to-use instructions.” Smith writes, “The cheery promotional material that attracted me to the macabre product assured in bold letters that it is ‘Proven effective!’ and that ‘the customized EXIT BAG is made of clear, strong industrial plastic. ’… It is advertised as having ‘a snug and comfortable fit. …’”
Suicide Popularized and Glamorized
There was a special report in the January 1997 issue of Ladies Home Journal on assisted suicide. It consisted of a roundtable discussion with “experts” and family members of people who had been euthanized. Assisted suicide was presented as an attractive option for those with serious illnesses.
In 2005, Million Dollar Baby, an American sports drama film directed, co-produced, and scored by Clint Eastwood, opened with widespread acclaim from critics, winning four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Hilary Swank. The film chronicles an underappreciated boxing trainer, Frankie (Clint Eastwood), the mistakes that haunt him from his past, and his quest for atonement by helping an underdog amateur boxer achieve her dream of becoming a professional. Hilary Swank, who plays the role of Maggie, wins a couple of big ones but is clobbered with a sucker punch. She falls hard on a stool, breaking her neck and leaving her a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic. As the days pass, Maggie develops bedsores and undergoes amputation of an infected leg. She asks Frank to help her die, declaring that she got everything she wanted out of life. She has lost the will to live and wants to exit this world. It’s a classic example of “death with dignity.”
Unfortunately, this is based on the dangerous idea that death is the end. According to the Bible, it is not the end. For some, it is the beginning of a most horrible existence from which there is no escape— “where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:44). It’s also based on the dehumanizing idea that human beings are just animals whose value is only based on their ability to function, rather than intrinsic worth as a living soul made in the image of God. Joni Eareckson Tada has been a quadriplegic for some fifty years. She has written 17 books, and has ministered to thousands. She is also an accomplished artist, painting with a brush in her mouth. Dr. Peter Kreeft has captured the truth when he wrote, “The point of this life … is to become the person God can love perfectly, to satisfy His thirst to love. Being counts more than doing, the singer more than the song. We had better stop looking for escape hatches, for this is our hatchery.”
The latest suicide docudrama is Netflix’s new movie, Thirteen Reasons Why, released March 31, 2017. A seventeen-year old, Clay Jensen, returns home one day to find a mysterious box on his porch. Inside he discovers thirteen cassette tapes, recorded by Hannah Baker, his deceased classmate, who killed herself two weeks earlier. On the tapes, Hannah unfolds an intensely emotional audio diary, detailing why she decided to end her life.
Death With Dignity
The phrase “death with dignity” is used to imply that death by suicide is inherently preferable to death by natural causes for those who are living with certain crippling and painful conditions. “Death with dignity” means that the person will be spared from the suffering associated with a terminal illness. Euthanasia proponents say that “death with dignity” allows the patient the freedom to die and escape the indignity of being dehumanized, and experiencing pain brought about by the application of extraordinary medical efforts at preserving life.
The confusion generated by saying that living your life with cancer, or quadriplegia, or some other crippling health issue is somehow undignified is an indictment of all of those multiplied thousands of people who are living successfully in those situations. It is certainly an indictment of someone like Joni Eareckson Tada who has been an inspiration to millions. Likewise, Nick Vujicic, the Australian Christian evangelist and motivational speaker born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by the absence of arms and legs, proves that life with dignity can be a reality, and an inspiration, despite a serious handicap. Do we want to ignore the courageous examples of these heroines and heroes whose lives remind us that overcoming tragedy and difficulty is one of the greatest examples of being made in the image of God? We are living in the glory of the image of God when we can turn darkness into light and misfortune into an opportunity for inspiration.
And what about those who live in the fear of physical and mental incapacitation? At present, there are advanced health care directives by which a person can make their wishes known before an accident or illness incapacitates them. There are laws in most states that bind doctors and require them to abide by these directives. This is an important consideration because the most common justification cited for supporting death with dignity has not been the pain and suffering involved, but rather the fear of “losing autonomy” and the ability to have a role in their own death (Duke University Journal of Law and Biosciences).
Quality Of Life
Within the last twenty or thirty years medical technology has given us high-tech helps to improve a person’s quality of life, even in situations where the person is seriously incapacitated due to an illness or accident. Kidney machines, pacemakers, insulin injections, and medications manage pain and depression and can improve one’s quality of life. Quality of life is a subjective concept. By “quality of life,” do we mean the ability to run, jump, deep-sea dive, or do we mean the ability to sit in a wheelchair, read a book, and perform some useful function that does not require a high degree of physical ability? For a Christian, the ability to speak, witness, read Scripture, have an ongoing prayer ministry, and to assist in a number of ways is a good incentive for staying alive. After all, in the perspective of eternity running, jumping, deep-sea diving, and other activities are really not that important. For senior citizens whose physical abilities have been greatly eclipsed by age, they can still have an important role and place in society. If quality of life, as conceived in terms of running, jumping, and deep-sea diving is the main factor in determining whether or not one should go on living, then everyone after seventy-five or eighty years of age should be euthanized.
While quality of life should enter into the equation, it really needs to be counterbalanced with the sanctity of human life. Because we have been made in the image of God, every human being has an inherent value, rather than just a functional value. A person created in the image of God may not be able to function very well, but that person still has an inherent value. It has become increasingly obvious that when we abandon a biblical view of human life for a materialist view, our humanity is cheapened. This curse of departing from the Bible hangs over the human race like a dark cloud. If America does not see revival and a return to a biblical theism, there will be such murder and mayhem in our society that life will be unbearable.
Is It Ever Right To Die?
We have all seen death in operation. It is a fact of life. Hebrews 9:27 says, “it is appointed unto men once to die.” The Bible also says, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if, by reason of strength, they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10). Even in the antediluvian period, when life spans were greatly elongated into hundreds and hundreds of years, we read the repeated words “and he died” (see Gen. 5). Yes, it is right to die. Christian ethicist Norman Geisler writes: “Keeping a comatose person alive by a machine, one who has an incurable disease and is irreversibly dying, is unnecessary. In fact, it could be viewed as unethical. … Extraordinary efforts to fight the divinely-appointed limits of our mortality are really working in opposition to God” (Christian Ethics, p. 125).
Because of her quadriplegia and years of wrestling with and praying over this issue, Joni Eareckson Tada’s comments are noteworthy: “The Bible teaches that any means to produce or hasten death in order to alleviate suffering is never justified. … However, letting someone die is another matter entirely. Allowing a person to die when he or she is, in fact, dying is justified” (When Is It Right To Die? p. 114).