The Victorian parliament is considering legalising voluntary medically assisted dying. While this raises some uncomfortable feelings for many people, it is a significant issue for the whole of our society, and one we should all consider very carefully.
Some folk will vehemently oppose the whole idea of ‘euthanasia’ (as it is often called) while others will just as strongly welcome the possibility that some form of voluntary medically assisted help with dying will at last become legal.
It is important to understand that the new law will allow suffering, dying, people to die in a manner of their own choosing when they feel ready. They will need to take the prescribed medication themselves and doctors will not be allowed to kill people. The new law will not allow mercy-killing or euthanasia as used by veterinarians.
Death is a fact of life. As much as possible, we generally try to avoid it happening to ourselves and others. Some believe that only God has the right to determine when we die, yet most accept treatment when the natural course of the disease would lead to death. They believe God approves of this, and that God has given us free will, allowing us to determine these things for ourselves.
Most consider it our responsibility to address suffering and extend life. Medical science, especially in recent centuries, has helped us enormously towards this end. We are grateful for these advances in human knowledge and our ability to show empathy and compassion.
Sometimes, perhaps more often than we care to admit, death comes as the culmination of drawn-out, painful and undignified processes which result from attempts to cure an illness, or simply to put off the inevitable end-of-life. Many people who have experienced the death of a loved one in these circumstances believe there must be a better way.
Others, however, have strong objections to the proposition that the law could allow a dying person legal access to medical help to end their life. Some have strong religious objections because they believe it is against God’s will. They may say that because all human life is held in trust from the Creator and is precious, it has an inherent sanctity; life should be embraced as a gift from God so only God has the right to end it. They will perhaps quote the commandment “You shall not kill”. (Exodus 20:13).
In 1994, our Vic/Tas Synod’s Bioethics Committee, under the chairmanship of Rev Doug Fullerton, examined this issue and concluded :
“The Committee faced the question of whether in an imperfect world there are situations in which responsible moral action may involve taking human life. The Committee concluded that such situations do exist. However, they ought to be regarded as exceptions. Such action cannot be taken with an absolutely clear conscience, for although we may believe we are acting responsibly and make these decisions as carefully and prayerfully as we can, we recognise that we may be wrong. The Committee acknowledges our continuous need for God’s grace and forgiveness.”
Some members of the Committee (we were among them) believed that our church should continue to explore this issue. We now strongly believe that legalised voluntary medically assisted dying is an appropriate approach for the state to take, and for us, as Christians, to support.
As Christians, we believe that in Jesus of Nazareth, we have the best insights about the real nature of our relationship with each other, and of the real nature of God’s relationship with humankind. Compassion is central to the teachings and activities of Jesus. He summarised all the old commandments in his new commandment to “love one another”.
We note that Jesus did not mention assisted dying in any of his recorded teachings, although we know assisted dying was practised before his time. Jesus taught that love and compassion for suffering people is the most important aspect of human living, demonstrated in his own life – which he voluntarily sacrificed because of his love for all people.
Having Christ-like compassion for others, means we need to do everything we can to reduce their suffering. Just knowing that assisted dying is available provides strong palliative relief for many suffering people who fear a distressing death.
While some may consider medically assisted dying as a failure of palliative care and some palliative care physicians feel it is unnecessary, the experience in Oregon (USA) shows otherwise. The reasons for seeking assisted death in Oregon are not severe pain or poor palliative care but loss of dignity, loss of autonomy and loss of the ability to enjoy things, which make life worthwhile. These losses cannot be relieved by palliative care.
Of nearly 40,000 deaths each year in that state, there are only about 130 assisted deaths, some 0.37 percent of all deaths. The vast majority of deaths are managed successfully with normal palliative care, and very few patients actually choose assistance with dying. In Oregon many people who are prescribed the medication do not actually take it, but never-the-less get great palliative relief from knowing that if their symptoms become unbearable they need not suffer an uncomfortable death.
In a recent case involving Dr Rodney Syme, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) accepted that providing a dying patient with a bottle of the medication substantially reduced fear of an uncomfortable death in the days and weeks before death. The patient did not have to take the drug to get the beneficial palliative relief; the simple possession of the drug, or a promise to have it supplied if requested, was sufficient to provide great relief. Dr Syme’s purpose in supplying the drug was to improve palliative care, not to end the patient’s life. The difference may be thought to be too subtle to be important, it is true that giving patients the means to end their suffering has a useful palliative effect at a very distressing time.
We believe it is possible to compassionately care for suffering dying people by supplying the drug, and, because we regard their life as sacred, we can tell them we hope they will not use it. However, we will understand if they do.
When suffering is intense, unending and unable to be relieved by medicine and religion, most people, including many of faith, reasonably wish to die a good death, surrounded by the love of family and friends. In such distressing circumstances, voluntary medical assisted dying facilitates such a death and may well be the most compassionate action. Refusing this medication to a person with unbearable suffering is a form of coercion and suggests a lack of compassion, or at best a limited compassion, which does not reflect the unlimited compassion of Jesus.
We believe it is important for us as Christians to speak up in support of the proposed new law, to counter some views which oppose it.
Do you agree that Christians should support the new law?
This is an edited version of an address presented by Dr Harley Powell to people of the Forest Hill Uniting Church on July 23 this year.