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The Value of Human Life

The case of euthanasia

[Background note: Although it is based on an interpretation of the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday, this sermon is also topical. It was prepared in 1995 when a public campaign was being waged by influential groups to have the law of the State of Victoria, Australia, changed to provide for voluntary euthanasia by medical intervention. It was at about the same time that the Northern Territory in Australia brought in the first law passed by any legislature in the world to provide for euthanasia. That law was later overturned by the Australian Federal Parliament which had authority over the Territory. I had previously been engaged in social psychological research which shows that attitudes to the taking of human life are not a simple single factor depending upon a belief such as one that only God has the right to take a life, although such attitudes are clearly influenced by basic beliefs of that kind. Much in contemporary social and political life depends upon our beliefs about the sovereignty of God in relation to the rights of individuals and societies. Jeremiah's lesson, in the OT reading for today, about the authority of the potter over the clay is at the centre of Christian and Jewish beliefs about the rights we have over our own lives, particularly in regard to euthanasia. It is now a point at which believers, though still debating particular policies, are taking a different position from secular humanists. Different implications follow from belief in unlimited human sovereignty rather than belief in God. As presented here this sermon may be too long and perhaps too complex for normal preaching. It was made available in written form for further study after the initial preaching.]

[In what follows I am leaving aside questions relating to other ways of taking human life, such as war and capital punishment. Back in my early academic days I did some research on `Attitudes to taking human life', the results of which were published in the The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology 1970 [pp 120-130]. In that research we found that attitudes to abortion and what we then called mercy killing, although not the same thing, had some common qualities and were different from attitudes to war and capital punishment. There was not a simple general attitude to taking human life. It is a complex matter, and we can deal only briefly with one small part of it today.]

It does need to be acknowledged that, at least for us today, abortion and euthanasia pose difficult questions. There is much debate. Some emphasise a right to life and say no one should ever put an end to human life, and that that includes the unborn foetus; others claim that adult human beings have a right to decide these matters according to their own assessment of the value of the life or lives in question, especially in regard to their own life or in the case of a pregnant woman that of the her unborn child as well as herself. Many others see the claim of conflicting rights as a real dilemma, and we might wonder whether seeing the problem in terms of competing rights is likely to be very helpful in the long run. In any case both abortion and euthanasia are genuinely felt by many to be difficult problems.

Let us first have compassion for people who struggle in good conscience

To this acknowledgement of real difficulty in deciding one's own attitude it is most important to add compassion for people who have had to struggle in their own lives with real cases. Most of us in the course of a lifetime will be confronted in our own families with really difficult choices on matters of life and death. Medical science, changes to the law and changed community attitudes have made things possible that were not possible in previous generations. We have to decide things in which people previously had no choice. Indeed in many situations it is no longer a question of whether people should have a choice, but what choice they should make. It is possible to keep people alive now who would be already be dead if they had lived earlier, and of course medically safe legal abortion is an available procedure whereas it was not generally available to previous generations. Even in earlier times people still struggled to decide what to do and sometimes acted illegally in doing what they believed to be right. Whatever the legal situation there have been many troubled consciences and traumatic experiences in deciding matters of life and death over which we have some control.

Few people act in a purely selfish and brutal matter. Wherever there is real human struggle with the moral questions a Christian attitude must include sympathy and be as understanding as possible. That is not always easy because people fear rejection, the very fact of the struggle they have gone through, or perhaps a struggle that is still going on, makes it difficult for them to share or to trust others. One of the saddest things is to discover that someone close to you has suffered a great deal without being able to share the burden that you would gladly have borne with them. We do not trust each other enough. There is great fear, especially in conventional Christian churches where people have never shared much of importance at any real depth, that moralistic or judgmental attitudes will come to the fore and the suffering person will be punished. That fear is more often than not quite unjustified, but the first thought of many in difficulty is not to want other people to know, especially people we respect; so in the fear that people might think less of us we can deprive ourselves of the support that would have been available. That is very sad. It raises questions about how we can develop confidence in the fellowship to support one another. It does take time. Many small acts of kindness, risking a little of ourselves, being open about our own problems, accepting of help from others, being more ready to listen than to advise -- these are things which can help to build up trust in which burdens can be shared. So let us do all that we can to encourage and support one another when we face these difficult questions.

Are there any guidelines?

Is it all a matter of individual choice? When we sympathise with the struggle of individual people, do we mean to say that whatever they decide is then right for them? Are there any rules anymore? Has humanity come of age so that it no longer needs, nor will tolerate, general moral teaching, from any authority whatever, let alone the church which is suspected by many in the community, and often even among its own members, to be an irrelevant, out of touch, conservative preserver of ancient ideas? Has the idea of progress so much influenced our common understanding that it is sufficient to label someone "conservative" to ensure that they will not be listened to in a modern society? Well, while I believe that people must decide for themselves what they will do, I also believe that there are some guidelines from Christian teaching. There are at least some goals we should strive for, even if we have to support one another when we fail to reach them.

Liberal minded Christians today are terrified of being thought no longer modern, unable to keep up with changes in the world. We in the Uniting Church generally have been in favour of change, and we have believed that the Christian faith as expressed in our kind of church is robust enough to cope with the required degree of change. Those of us who have lived a few decades in this church and its predecessors before Union have combined a continuing commitment in the faith with ready acceptance of great changes in the community, many of which have quite profound affects on our personal situations and families. To a large extent we have been right. The Christian faith is not tied to the way people lived in the past, but there are signs now that we have reached a crisis point at which the old easy ways of adaptability will no longer serve. The pressures to conform to a secular way of life are intense, they become more and more insistent, and more openly anti-Christian. We may hate to admit that we find a new change unacceptable, but we will be pushed increasingly to the point where must either say `No' or be forced to abandon the faith altogether.

It is indeed at the very point of deciding important questions for ourselves, in our own way, that we are in the greatest danger. `J.S.', writing `A Saturday Reflection', in The Age [Melbourne newspaper] yesterday [9 September 1995] quoted the rock star Alice Cooper. He surprised us all, last year, says J.S., when he told Heavy Metal magazine:

There you have it: a clear example of the very modern culture resulting in dissatisfaction with its own achievements. Human autonomy, deciding everything for ourselves as if there were no higher authority, does become unsatisfying.

The sanctity of life

It is especially in the debates on euthanasia and abortion that the right to decide matters of life and death for ourselves is commonly asserted. Quality of life, as we see it, is put forward in competition with any idea that life itself, whatever its quality, is sacred. In the same article as he referred to the rock star, J.S. commented

and he quoted the celebrated French intellectual Jacques Attali as saying that the

Some sense of the sanctity of life is basic to a Christian understanding. Biblically speaking, a person is "in the image of God", able to relate to God, and to relate to others in the kind of relationship that Jesus enjoyed with God the Father. We have the potential to become children of God. That is God's purpose for us in his creation. Ultimately we belong to him and can hope to find our place with him, and we are not free to do with our lives whatever we will. The sanctity of life has to do with its purpose and the value that is placed on human life by its Creator who gave it the potential to share in the very life of the Creator God.

To whom does the vessel of life belong?

Here we can learn something from the Old Testament reading for today [Jeremiah 18:1-11] about the lesson that Jeremiah learned watching the potter at work at his wheel. He saw how when the potter was not satisfied with the vessel he was making he "reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him." The question is whether, or how much, we can be the potter to the vessel of our own lives and how much we should yield our shaping to the Creator.

As Jeremiah saw it, the vessel was the nation of Israel which had forgotten the sovereignty of God, thinking that they could work out their own future, but he was warning them that God was about the reshape them if they did not repent.

So the passage we read goes. It continues later in Chapter 19 to tell of the prophet taking an earthenware pot to the city gate and breaking it as he spoke of the danger to the nation. In the actual history of the nation, Israel was defeated a few years later, its leaders were taken away to Babylon as captives, and after a subsequent revolt the city of Jerusalem was destroyed. Jeremiah's prophecy of doom came true; so in a sense did the reshaping of the vessel for the city was restored gradually a hundred years or so later, but then it was different.

The same idea, of seeing the Creator as the potter, was used by Isaiah:

In New Testament times, Paul wrote to the Romans in similar vein:

That is something that it is very difficult for a modern man or woman to accept: that there is a given character to life -- that in our relationship with God it is part of our trust in him to accept what is given to us. To attempt to take complete charge is a lack of faith. Sadly, it is almost forced upon people when they give up belief in God altogether.

I cannot take now time to spell out now how our wisdom can be limited but might suggest that you read Michael Leunig's comment in the set of extracts from a recent book The Last Right which was reviewed in The Age on Friday. It was about the value of the additional few weeks of life he shared with a friend who had survived an attempt end his life by medical means.

But let me deal a little further with the claim of autonomy in deciding to end one's own life. Does anyone, or does everyone, have a right to commit suicide? Without relying upon the Christian understanding of the sanctity of life, it is still possible to make a case against a general right to commit suicide and therefore against assisted suicide. This argument does however rely upon another Christian understanding, though one shared with many non-believers, concerning the value of life in community.

Who, if anyone, has a right to commit suicide?

Some years ago I was called to the critical care unit of a hospital to provide pastoral support for a family whose son had attempted to commit suicide. The young man had taken a large dose of a drug which slowed his heart rate to the point where it stopped. While the medical staff fought to save his life he resisted all treatment and kept pulling out the tubes and disconnecting the apparatus. He was restrained and sedated, and a pacemaker was fitted to keep his heart beating. After several hours of uncertainty he survived. Were his rights violated? Did he have a right to commit suicide?

As far as they were made known to me this young man's reasons for wanting to die were much the same as research in recent years has revealed to be common among young male suicides, of which Australia has a very large number. Typically such people feel alienated from society and useless; they are often unemployed, and will previously have carried out other acts which are self-destructive or self-punishing, while in various ways they have received messages that there is no place for them in their society.

The Age, representing a currently popular secular humanist ideology said in an editorial 5 July 1995, that "A civilised society does not permit any pressure or hint of pressure on its older members to make them believe they have outlived their usefulness". I wonder if that is true and how general it is. In the light of what we know about suicides can we apply to Australian society the same claim in respect of young people: can we honestly say something like, "A civilised society does not permit any pressure or hint of pressure on its young people to make them believe they have no useful place in their society and that their life is not worth living"? It should be obvious that most societies are very effective in conveying messages of rejection to people who are not wanted whether they be young or old.

Are we to say that some people, namely old people, have a right to commit suicide and others, especially young people, do not have that right? Is any such a right to be limited to special circumstances, and if so is a person's subjective assessment of the worthwhileness of their life to be a relevant consideration, or even the only consideration? If the value a person places on his or her own life at a particular time is not always sufficient, then is some other person's assessment of the worthwhileness of their life to weigh in the balance? The debate about euthanasia turns on the various answers that can be given to these questions.

Many modern people apparently believes in an absolute right to commit suicide. To quote The Age editorial again: "In rendering suicide no longer a crime, the law in this state recognises that people have a right to end their lives -- if they can". Is that true, and is it intended to apply to all cases literally, including the young man noted above or the case of a depressed young mother, or even an old person who simply feels useless? And is it true that people have a right to do everything that is not a crime?

The basis on which euthanasia has been justified by The Age, Professor Singer and others, is a false claim to human rights with much wider implications than they have recognized.

No man is an island

In modern society it is quite common for a proposed radical change to be justified by inventing a new human right or by advancing a supposed right that has not been widely acknowledged before. Such a strategy is based on a highly individualistic view of human nature and society. It is relatively recent. It has been much more common in the past to recognize some balance between the interests of the individual and what is good for society as a whole, especially in matters of life and death. It has been the normal human experience that we have an interest in each other's lives.

So John Donne could write "No man is an island, entire to itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. .... Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

I hope no one will say in response that we should not keep people alive merely for our own satisfaction. Of course we should not; but what this way of understanding human life does, is to put seriously into question the claim that every person has a right as an individual to commit suicide. If that claim is false then, although many complex questions remain, one of the premises of the argument for euthanasia disappears. If not everyone, but some people, have such a right, perhaps in certain circumstances, then how do we decide who does and when? Which takes us back to where we started: the claim must be justified on other grounds than a presumed right of the individual person.

A different approach, not based on a doubtful human right or individualistic values, might be to address the general question in terms of compassionate sharing of responsibility. When the primary concern is to alleviate suffering, then a shared intention to relieve pain might result in co-operation in a program of palliative care which includes some elements that increase the likelihood of death. Some philosophers today put forward the argument that administration of a drug to relieve pain, which at the same time might result in death, would be permissible if the intention was to relieve pain rather than to kill. We generally agree that intention is an important consideration in homicide. In any case some approach not based on invented or doubtful human rights, but on a shared responsibility for life, might lead to a better outcome.

We are still left with the need to struggle with the particular circumstances of making choices in our own lives. Two things come out of these reflections which ought to be taken into account, at least as general guidelines.

1. We are not our own. The vessel in which we have our life in this world was made by God for a purpose. Moreover, it is a purpose for which Christ died. We who believe in him have merged our lives with his and belong to him.

2. Nor are we on our own. We do not have this life alone as individuals, but in relationship to others. The value of human life and responsibility for the stewardship of life is shared in a human community. For a Christian it is a responsibility shared in the fellowship of believers in which there should be mutual trust and support of one another to bear whatever burdens may fall on us in an imperfect world from which evil is yet to be banished.

Let us then prayerfully approach these questions as children of God and continue in loving care of one another.

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