Discussion of end of life issues can be quite complex. Arguments on both sides of the issue can be extremely passionate due to the presence of deeply held emotional beliefs among opponents. This characteristic of the debate is fully inescapable in instances such as these. Despite the natural difficulty in forming arguments supporting a position on an end of life issue, I believe that there are some general principles which allow for the formation of a successful foundation. In taking a stance on heated issues , it is important to build an argument around fundamental concepts. By following this basic pattern, I find it possible to construct an argument against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide on the basis of the idea of Christian Love.
The word love holds many different meanings for many different people. The concept of Christian love is similar in that it also includes a multitude of facets. However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does appear to outline the basic premise of love. Love is “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. For man is created in the image and likeness of God who is himself love” (1604). The definition found in the Catechism establishes that it is the calling of every person to love. This is the essential fundamental from which all of humanity is meant to proceed. Difficulties arise in attempting to answer this innate call. Individuals may have different views on what exactly it means to answer the call to love. We will first ponder this in light of the circumstances of the end of life situation. In any position on end of life situations, two scenarios may be present. Either acting to preserve life will outweigh the relief of suffering or relieving suffering will outweigh the preservation of life. Examples are present within Christian teaching which are fully applicable to the question of preservation of life at all costs. An excellent example can be found in the incarnate nature of Jesus Christ. “Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). In this example of Christ’s love, lessons abound. Love cannot always seek to possess. Love cannot be used to justify the decision to preserve life at all costs and for as long as possible. Part of true love is letting go. In the incarnation of the Word, Jesus did not cling to equality with God at all costs. True love of humanity allowed Christ to let go of pure divinity, just as true love sometimes calls for a person to let go of life. Actions that attempt to preserve life unconditionally, then, fail to adhere to an important facet comprising Christian love. True love sometimes must learn to let go. Therefore, assertions supporting the preservation of life at all costs are invalid.
The situation involving the elimination of suffering at all costs cannot be dealt with quite as easily as the unconditional preservation of life. We first must discuss the situation of allowing someone to die. In this passive action, nature simply is running its course. In allowing a person to die there is an acceptance of God’s natural order which mimics Christ’s own becoming obedient unto death, including the suffering of death on the cross. Based on this example, it appears that the possibility of letting die can be established as a highly permissible act, an act fully in conjunction with the principles of Christian love. Take for instance a terminal patient living out his or her final days. If at some point the patient stopped breathing, according to the principles of love, it would be permissible to withhold procedures of resuscitation and allow the patient to die. It would be morally wrong, however, to give the patient an injection to end suffering quickly and painlessly. Initially, this may potentially be highly contradictory. The end of each act is the same. Death results, and in either instance, death has been imminent for some time. The only difference between the two possibilities is that in the latter, the period of suffering is shortened. This would appear to be the noble action. However, while on the surface this is so, a deeper investigation must occur to uncover the moral wrong. To grasp the central issue, “we must distinguish what we aim in our action from the result of the action” (Meilaender 82). In the instance of letting die, we aim to relieve the suffering of the patient by letting go under the auspices of Christian love. Based on this aim, the resulting death is justified. In the reverse, however, the aim of the injection is to bring about the death of the patient. The result of the action is the relief of suffering. It would be foolish to argue that the resultant relief of suffering is a negative situation. Clearly, viewed independently, the resulting relief is a fully positive occurrence. However, the aim of purposely causing death is wholly negative and impermissible. Because the aim is not morally acceptable, the result of this aim, however positive or beneficial, is invalid as a source of justification. Based on this aim vs. result criteria, it is not possible to justify a relief-of-suffering-at-all-costs claim. Unconditional relief of suffering will involve a process in which the aim of the action is morally wrong. Although the result appears positive, this approach to end of life situations is flawed because its aims are morally impermissible. Refuting the arguments that seek to relieve suffering may seem to be rather callous. “It ought to be the case that dying people not suffer terribly. But, at least for the Christian, it does not follow from that ‘ought to be’ that we ‘ought to do’ whatever is necessary- even euthanasia- to relieve them of that suffering” (Meilaender 84). In these cases, then, the only morally permissible action is that with an allowable aim. On the basis of this aim vs. result framework, questions concerning the withdrawal of food and drink are also easily addressed. Problems arise in some of the justification used for performing this action. It is not possible to,
when withdrawing food from the permanently unconscious person, properly claim that our intention is to cease useless treatment for a dying patient. These patients are not dying, and we cease no treatment for a dying patient. These patients are not dying, and we cease no treatment aimed at disease; rather, we withdraw the nourishment that sustains all human beings whether healthy or ill, and we do so when the only result of our action can be death. At what, other than that death, could we be aiming? (Meilaender 105)
The result of this action may be viewed as beneficial by others. It is conceivable that supporters might make the claim that ending the life of a person in this situation is another example of alleviating prolonged suffering. However, once again, a beneficial result must not be viewed in a type of consequentialist interpretation. Again, the aim of the action is to bring about death. We have previously established that it is the aim of an action which provides morality to it. Therefore, in these situations, aim supercedes the result.
When pondering the aim of an action, the inclination may arise to include the motive of the action. Initially, this may seem beneficial, but the inclusion of motive brings the potential for subsequent clouding of the issue. “One might think that Christian emphasis on the overriding importance of love as a motive would suggest that whatever was done out of love was right” (Meilaender 86). However, this clearly cannot be the case. A motive of love might drive someone to act to relieve the suffering of another. In this instance, the result of the action, relief of suffering is good. Furthermore, the motive of love is also positive. Still, though, if this result, even while intended positively, is achieved through a negative aim, all positives are overridden. As has been stated before, no negative aim can possibly be made morally permissible simply on the basis of positive results. To this we shall now add, no negative aim can possibly become morally allowable because of positive motive. By eliminating from consideration this condition of motive, we have affirmed the notion that the morality of an action is determined by its aim.
We shall move now to another important aspect of Christian love. “Barth writes that human life ‘must always be regarded as a divine act of trust’” (Meilaender 86). If this is taken to be true, human life is a gift. Because of this status as a gift, a degree of respect should be invoked. But, this gift of life is not greater than all else. Limits are present. It is the responsibility of humanity to live within these limits. This, then, presents a framework for the obedience of humanity to God. Because of the respect for this gift of life, humanity must respect and obey the limits of this gift set forth by God. Examples of Christ’s own obedience abound. Philippians 2 mentions the obedience of Christ to the will of the father. This is an important model for the whole of humanity. “Jesus goes to the cross in the name of obedience and his Father. We need not glorify or seek suffering, but we must be struck by the fact that a human being who is a willing sufferer stands squarely in the center of Christian piety” (Meilaender 88). This is an important consideration to be made.
Suffering is a part of the human condition, and, as such, should not be viewed as entirely negative. This quality of suffering is vividly outlined in “Euthanasia,” a Declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, written by Pope John Paul II on May 5, 1980. Just as life is a true gift from God, it can also be declared that death is a true gift from God. While death, or any suffering associated with it, is undesirable to the human mind, it is a strong opportunity to grow closer to Christ. “As St. Paul says, ‘while we live we are responsible to the Lord, and when we die we die as His servants. Both in life and in death we are the Lord’s’” (John Paul II 651). Suffering is a cross for humanity to bear, with rewards to follow after this life. “Suffering, especially in the final moments of life, has a special place in God’s plan of salvation. It is sharing in the passion of Christ and unites the person with the redemptive sacrifice which Christ offered in obedience to the Father’s will” (John Paul II 652-653). Humans must live their lives according to God’s plan. Any action taken against the gift of life must be seen as a complete rejection of God’s supremacy and vision. If this occurs, there has been a great failure to follow Christ’s example of Obedience to the will of God.
The desire to avoid suffering is common among all people. Fear of pain and suffering is natural. Christianity is not attempting to claim that we should have no fear of pain and suffering, or that we should seek it out. “The Christian mind has certainly not recommended that we seek suffering or call it an unqualified good, but it is an evil that, when endured faithfully, can be redemptive” (Meilaender 90). Once we have accepted the potential for redemptive value in suffering, our approach to dealing with it is altered. Realizing that suffering is important, the goal of love shifts from attempting to alleviate suffering. There should be a movement from minimizing suffering to maximizing love and care (Meilaender 90). In situations such as these, sometimes there is nothing more that can be done than to try to empathize with the patient, to suffer along with the sufferer.
What exactly do we find ourselves left with? We have now achieved an understanding that issues at the end of life cannot be fully understood without the concept of Christian love. It is possible for us to declare, as Meilaender does, that “love could never euthanatize” (92). Some might argue that this point is inherently flawed. However, this is the foundation of the Christian stance on this issue. In the Christian view, love would not permit any action which occurs with the overall aim of death. Opposing claims that humanitarian acts are those of love miss this essential point. Meilaender describes the designation of these Humanitarian acts as loving as a matter of temptation. They are temptation in that they are examples of an attempt to usurp the authority of God. We have previously established that humanity includes the inherent requirement of obedience to God, based on respect for God’s gift of life. True respect of that gift must be accompanied by an understanding of the limits which are imposed upon humanity. Any definition of love in a humanitarian manner moves the concept beyond the boundaries of the limits imposed by God. This must, therefore, disallowed. Accepting, then, that love is an essential, but limited, component of humanity, it must be realized that any actions which aim to bring about the end of life are inherently impermissible.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Meilaender, Gilbert. The Limits of Love. University Park: The Pennsylvania State
University Press, 1987.
Pope John Paul II. “Euthanasia.” On Moral Medicine. 1998 2nd Ed.