Sunday, October 21, 2012

Death with Dignity? Massachusetts Ballot Question 2


“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asks for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.”
—from the Oath of Hippocrates

On Tuesday November 6, 2012 voters in Massachusetts will be doing more than choosing between Presidential candidates.  In fact, I suggest a far more weighty decision has been placed before us.  Popularly known as the “Death with Dignity” Initiative, or Question 2, this ballot question plunges voters into an emotionally charged and morally challenging debate. 

The proposal would allow terminally ill patients (defined as those believed to have less than 6 months to live) the right to request from a physician enough medication to end their life.   The request must come from a patient deemed competent to make such a serious decision.  The patient’s diagnosis and life expectancy must be confirmed by a second physician.  The patient must make the request both verbally and in writing, and includes a provision for a 15 day waiting period.  Currently just 2 other states (Oregon and Washington) have similar legislation. 

How are Christians to respond to this issue?  What is the Biblical way to approach this subject?  In what way should our faith inform our decision to support or oppose this initiative?  The following points are a few which come to my mind.

First, I am deeply concerned as a Christian with the issue of suffering and death.  Suffering surrounds us in this world.  The grim reality of death is inescapable.  The Bible explains that both these things are a radical and terrible distortion from God’s initial purposes in Creation brought about by sin.  Paul deals with this reality in great detail in Romans 5.  There he says that “sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men.”  I have known personally the difficulty of seeing a close acquaintance die from cancer.  I have spoken at the funeral of someone who died unexpectedly.  As a pharmacist I have dispensed hundreds of prescriptions to patients battling the pains and fears of terminal illness.  This is our present world.  In this world death, misery and suffering meet us around every corner.  Such miseries and tears cannot leave us unmoved or unsympathetic. 

Second, the desire to die when faced with the prospect of nothing but misery is not unnatural.  Take the case of Job.  He was a man whom the Lord Himself declared to be singularly Godly, “a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil (Job 1:8).”  But then, confronted with the loss of his children, his livelihood and his health – Job preferred death to life.  He said “May the day perish on which I was born…may that day be as darkness…why did I not die at birth (Job 3)?”  His suffering was intense and he wanted to die.   He said “Oh that I might have my request, that God would grant me the thing that I long for!  That it would please God to crush me, that He would loose His hand and cut me off (Job 6:8-9)!”  Jonah, the Lord’s prophet to Nineveh had a similar experience when he said "Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live (Jonah 4:3)!”  Those who find themselves in the midst of despair are not alone or unique when they feel or express a desire to end their life. 

Third, God Himself is concerned with our suffering.   The whole scope and history of God’s dealing with mankind displays His compassion for our circumstances and His purpose to deal with it.  He is concerned not merely about the terrible tragedy of physical suffering and physical death, but also with the far greater tragedy of spiritual suffering and spiritual death.  This dual concern - for both the physical and spiritual ruins of mankind – finds its greatest expression in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Himself was not unconcerned with our suffering.  He wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11) and was moved with compassion at the death of a widow’s son (Luke 7).  But most significantly, He Himself endured the greatest of suffering and cruelest of deaths, in order to bear the penalty of sin for His people.  Hebrews 12:2 reminds us that “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.”  Peter tells us Christ “suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust (1 Peter 3:18).” 

Fourth, neither the degree of our immediate suffering nor the apparent hopeless before us, gives to us as God’s creatures the prerogative to end our lives.  Against the temptation to do so, as with any other temptation, the Lord makes His promise to believers that "No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it." (1 Corinthians 10:13)  The Christian and Biblical view of murder traces the heart of the issue back to the image of God in man.  The unlawful taking of life, either our own or others, is an assault upon God’s image within us.  Life is God’s to give.  He is the God who “gives life to all things (1 Timothy 6:13).”  And God expects us to honor that gift of life.   “The Lord is with those who uphold my life (Psalm 54:4).”  On the contrary, Proverbs 8:36 says “All those who hate me love death.” 

Finally, a Biblical view of suffering must always take into account that God, in His infinite wisdom, can use even the worst circumstances and suffering to bring about good.  The apostle Paul knew pain, suffering and sorrow.  Many times he was persecuted and brought near the point of death.  He was often alone and rejected.  He endured whatever he mysteriously calls his “thorn in the flesh.”  Yet in the end he could say “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).”  For all who turn to Christ, there is the assurance that their pain – however difficult to bear – is not meaningless.

In addition to these 5 concerns, it may also be worth pointing out that the American Medical Association and the Massachusetts  Medical Association oppose the idea of physician-assisted suicide.  To quote from the AMA Code of Ethics “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer. Instead of participating in assisted suicide, physicians must aggressively respond to the needs of patients at the end of life … in order that these patients continue to receive emotional support, comfort care, adequate pain control, respect for patient autonomy and good communication.

Conclusion:  The Christian is intimately concerned with and sensitive to the issues related to the “death with dignity” ballot question.  But our concern must begin by taking God’s idea of compassion first – compassion far more comprehensive and gracious than our own.  We uphold the efforts of all who seek to minimize suffering through medical interventions, but we also must object strongly to any legislation that contributes to our cultural attack on the image of God in man.  This law would seem to suggest that some lives, those of the terminally ill, are no longer worth living.  It contributes to an eroding appreciation for the value of life.  The Lord is not less concerned with the lives of those who are near the point of death.  The thief on the cross next to Christ was – if you will – terminally ill.  However, he did not have 6 months.  He didn’t even have 6 hours.  But Christ spoke to Him the words of life.  And that repentant sinner heard the good news from the lips of Jesus:  “today you will be with Me in paradise (Luke 23:43).” 

And we also believe, as Christians, that there is something worse than death.  This is a sobering thought, but it must enter our discussion of this issue.  Death is not really the end for anyone.  The Bible says "it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment (Hebrews 9:27).”  For those who put their faith in the Savior Jesus Christ there is something glorious on the other side of our suffering.  But for those who reject the Lord, there awaits something worse on the other side of death. 
Christ came to give life.  He said to Martha at the tomb of Lazarus “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.  And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.  Do you believe this (John 11:25-26)?”

Dear reader – Do you believe this?  

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