Theologian David Guretzki reflects on what he learned from a hospital encounter
Maureen, my beautiful bride of over 30 years, has multiple sclerosis. She has resolutely fought on for many years, despite the cumulative limitations the frustrating disease keeps bringing.
During a recent traumatic hospital stay, Maureen had an elderly roommate, a woman who had requested medical assistance to end her life. Family and friends filed in over the week, most putting on brave faces and offering stoic goodbyes. We couldn’t help but overhear.
The experience was unsettling. It forced me to consider more deeply the end of life issues I’ve been thinking about over the last couple of years. Here it was, unfolding right in front of me, just on the other side of the curtain in my wife’s hospital room.
My journey with medical assistance in dying (MAID) began in 2017 when I gave expert theological testimony for a contentious Ontario court case. Several physicians, many evangelical, had challenged Ontario’s College of Physicians and Surgeons when it mandated that all physicians were compelled to participate at minimum by giving "effective referral" to patients desiring MAID. Sadly, we lost that case and physicians’ consciences are still not sufficiently protected.
More recently, when I’ve been speaking with some Evangelicals about this issue, I’ve been noticing something. I’ve been troubled by those of my own tribe who privately question me whether, in cases of extreme suffering, medical assistance in death is really that bad.
Having been asked a theological question, I do what a theologian does. I give a theological answer. I don’t convince everyone.
Now, it’s very possible my theological rhetoric is weak – I admit I’m far from the most eloquent. But I don’t think theology is necessarily where resistance shows up.
Most people ask about assisted death’s morality not out of theoretical curiosity, but because they’re close to suffering people, whether those they serve or their loved ones who endure anguish and pain. As a medical professional recently wrote to me, "As a Christian, I’ve seen too much suffering not to think that at least in some cases, giving someone a way out is the most loving thing to do."
When Christians see suffering our instinct should be to reduce it. I get it. Reducing suffering is a good, even godly, instinct to have. Unquestionably, Jesus is our example here (Matthew 20:32–34; Mark 1:40–42).
But it’s precisely because of our compassionate feelings that we must not fall into a deceptive trap – that a laudable end (the reduction of suffering) justifies the most radical means (the intentional ending of another’s life).
We need theological clarity on assisted suicide, and we need clarity on what does and does not count as Christian compassion.
Calling out assisted suicide and euthanasia
Call it theological arrogance, if you must, but I believe the theological argument against assisted suicide and euthanasia is nearly irrefutable.
First, some definitions are needed. Assisted suicide is the intentional taking of your own life with the assistance of another person. In practical terms it means advance arrangement for when your life will end with assistance from medical professionals.
Euthanasia is slightly different. It is the intentional ending of another person’s life when her or his life is, for some reason, deemed no longer worth extending. Currently, euthanasia in Canada happens when an individual is no longer able to give consent in the moment, but had given prior instructions for circumstances when their life should be ended.
We need, first, to morally differentiate suicide from assisted suicide and euthanasia. In my view, all are contrary to a Christian ethic, but there are important differences.
The biblical morality of suicide demands its own discussion, but for the sake of our argument here, I will point out that no straightforward "Thou shalt not kill yourself" commandment can be found in Scripture. That doesn’t mean suicide is morally acceptable. There are lots of things we deem sinful which are not directly prohibited.
While suicide is a final act of an individual, both assisted suicide and euthanasia involve at least two (and, given they occur in homes or medical institutions, perhaps multiple) persons who will be held accountable for their actions before God – the one initiating her or his own death and the one(s) intentionally administering, causing or abetting that death.
If that’s the case, we need to name assisted suicide and euthanasia for what they are from a biblical perspective – they are murder. They involve one or more persons acting intentionally to take the life of another without divine permission. (We need to add "divine permission" because God’s Word allows that sometimes the death of another person might be accidental or even directly commanded by God who alone is Lord over life and death – but that is for another article another time).
There’s no biblical evidence of divine permission being extended to someone to end another’s life just because they have a medical licence or just because they have been asked to do it.
How then can assisted suicide or euthanasia be viewed as anything but murder?
I hope Christians can at least agree that murder is biblically prohibited. And I hope as we consider what’s going on in Canada with MAID, we will have eyes to see what’s really taking place. Because these practices have been sanitized by terminology like "medically assisted death" and because they’re administered by those with medical licences, our moral vision is in danger of being blurred, like eyeglasses smudged by careless handling.
The name MAID itself is a terminological sleight of hand. So are assisted suicide, euthanasia, mercy killing or even dying with dignity. What’s really happening is murder.
Let’s not be deceived. God can’t be mocked – or tricked. He does not look away or wink when one person ends another person’s life, euphemisms notwithstanding. Death is the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) and murder is antithetical to those who claim to know the God of eternal life (1 John 3:15). We know that by revelation and hopefully by conscience.
I deeply resonate with the compassion and mercy we feel in the face of suffering. But I don’t believe – nor do I think our faith allows us to believe – that killing the one suffering is the answer. Maybe we just have to be reminded, yet again.
A theologian’s – and husband’s – struggle
Even if we achieve theological clarity on MAID, I think the pressing problem for Christians is having to deal with our emotions in the face of suffering. We feel compelled in our souls to find ways to end pain and suffering. And we should be concerned if we didn’t feel such compulsion.
Reflecting on what I witnessed in the hospital, I realized how quickly my compassion was awakened, even though I didn’t know this roommate whose life was shortly to end.
It was traumatizing for my wife and I to be there, especially since the small hospital room was crowded and had only a paper-thin curtain separating our families. The discomfort was made worse one dreary day when the woman’s grandson came in, having travelled far to see her. He wept uncontrollably. Eventually, in his distress he tore himself away from Grandma’s bedside.
It was hard not to cry along with him. Weeks later, back in our own home, I asked Maureen what struck her most about her hospital stay. She immediately blurted, "That woman who was ending her life and her grandson crying at her bedside." Maureen’s own stay was traumatic enough, and her own suffering great enough, but it was the woman in the next bed, and her weeping grandson, that sticks with her today.
When I think back now, even though the family was doing something I so strongly disagree with, I still feel compassion for them. My heart’s not that hard. But what is now becoming clear and truly horrific to me was that I sat in a hospital room alongside a woman who was shortly to be murdered – and did nothing.
In any other place – on the street, on a bus, in an office building – my compassion would trigger my instinct to intervene, to protect, to intercept the one threatening that woman’s life. Maybe I would even be heroic enough to step in, to allow my life to be taken instead of hers (see Jesus in John 15:13).
As I think back to that awful day, I struggle. Why didn’t I seek to intervene in the willful death of another?
Why didn’t equal measures of moral outrage and compassion surface as I would expect if my own wife or children had been endangered?
What silenced the tongue of a professional arranger of words in the face of such evil?
Why didn’t I treat my neighbour as myself and love as I would want to be loved?
I do not have an answer. And I seek God’s forgiveness for the sin of omission for which I am likely guilty. But I do think that in that hospital room moment, even I, the theologian who makes theological arguments against assisted suicide, had been duped. I was duped into accepting that my compassion for another’s suffering was sufficient to justify that MAID is something other than what God calls it – murder by the hand of another.
The weeping of the grandson haunts me even now.
Friends, we are not discussing enough the still unknown vast and devastating effects to families and communities left behind. What exactly will be the aftermath of this terrifying new medical and legal environment called MAID? It is much more than just another empty hospital bed. Of that I am certain.
I am doubly haunted as I contemplate the difficulties yet to come for my wife whose suffering is far from over. I hope and pray we and our children will have Christ’s grace and strength to endure when her suffering increases.
In all this I admit the suffering I experience is different from my wife’s. She bears up heroically in the face of physical and mental suffering. She never complains. I too suffer – but unlike her struggles against an invisible neurological enemy, my struggles are the suffering of my own emotional discomfort of watching her suffer.
This all causes me to wonder. Will we become increasingly pressured to end our own lives to relieve the uncomfortable inconvenience to others inevitably caused by our suffering? Or more shockingly, will we succumb to the temptation to aid and abet the ending of another’s suffering, even by our tacit approval, so that in some way our own discomfort with suffering might be more quickly abated?
And will we justify both as acts of compassion? It’s not difficult to see the day coming, if it hasn’t already come.
Make no mistake. Ending the suffering of another, even a beloved other, by taking their life is not compassion. It is deep confusion and darkness, a revelation of the heart of our own selfishness.
Compassion does all it can to help a suffering person. Compassion seeks the best palliative care and the best possible control over pain. But above all, compassion must, as held and offered by family and friends, refuse to hasten death, but instead be with and stay with those facing the terrible tribulations of their suffering. Compassion will walk through the darkness and the pain as a steady companion.
The Great Shepherd’s compassion does not cause Him to turn from us or hasten us through the valley of the shadow of death. That Shepherd walks alongside us. He comforts us with His rod and staff, as some of us have read from Psalm 23 our entire lives. That is the arduous, big and long compassion we are called on to exercise. Even when at times suffering seems to have surpassed the limits of what some are called upon to bear. Especially then.
David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive vice-president and resident theologian of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.