People frequently walk through life with two mental crutches: politics and religion. These crutches are mechanisms that people frequently use to avoid dealing with problems. These crutches form barriers to relationships and inhibit personal growth. They retard the development of wisdom, resilience, and courage. When we lean on the mechanism of religion as a replacement for struggling through life’s greatest challenges or when we lean on the mechanism of politics as a way to avoid dealing with social issues on a personal level, then our spiritual growth is stunted; and our character fails to develop as it should. The issues of assisted suicide and end-of-life decisions clearly illustrate the futility of these crutches.
Before wading into this difficult issue, I feel I should offer the following statements up front, in order to set the framework for the discussion. Life is precious. All human life (including that of unborn children, the mentally infirm, and the terminally ill) is sacred. Humans should be treated with dignity. Human life seems to have lost much of its value in America today—or at least it has become selectively valued—an insidious problem that is rotting the soul of our culture. Now to the issue.
End of life decisions have become complicated by advances in medical knowledge which has progressed to levels that would have seemed unbelievable 50 or even 25 years ago. We have the ability to diagnose most diseases, we can treat at least the symptoms of the majority of these diseases, and we can even frequently sustain life in absence of higher brain function. Many individuals and families have found themselves facing the dilemmas of terminal illness or “brain death.” Not surprisingly, in our culture which is increasingly demanding political solutions to personal problems, the issue of physician-assisted suicide came into the public spotlight about 25 years ago when Jack Kevorkian offered to help end the life of terminally ill patients. He advocated for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. The Christian community was outraged and campaigned for states to maintain and courts to uphold their bans on assisted suicide.
There is an extremely fine line to walk here, and perfect balance and clarity is probably impossible. On one side, the natural outcome of the progressive devaluation of human life has resulted in a level of barbarism that a large segment of the American populace would prefer to ignore. See here, here, and here for examples. On the other side, there are hurting people who are forced to come to terms with one of the most difficult struggles that a person can face: the transition from life as we know it to “the other side.” There is no manual with step-by-step instructions to follow that we can use to walk us through the process. Each individual must struggle with his unique circumstances and make the best decision he can.
In the Christian religion, institutional preservation is paramount. For this reason, Christians that are devoted to their religion take every opportunity to use politics to bolster their power. Yet, for every political battle they win, they are one step closer to losing the spiritual war, their influence on the culture waning with every skirmish. And as the smoke drifts from their political battlefields, they proudly move on to the next political battle, leaving in the fallout hurting people to struggle through life and death decisions alone.
I consider suicide to be a waste of every good thing God has given us. It is a selfish act and always a tragedy. But for those facing certain death, the issue isn’t always clear-cut. Even our medical knowledge has limits which can’t eliminate the ambiguity of situations where the brain continues to command autonomic survival functions, but forebrain function has ceased, seemed to cease, or partially ceased. The heartbreaking story of Terri Schiavo, who died in 2005, comes to mind. While in a coma, Terri’s feeding tube was removed at the demand of her husband, despite the objections of her parents and physicians who were convinced that Terri was regaining brain function. This case lingered for years in court with many appeals before the final decision.
What about people who are diagnosed with terminal cancer and who have the option of undergoing expensive and painful chemotherapy or radiation treatments, which will potentially extend their life by a few weeks or months, but will certainly cause a tremendous amount of pain for the duration of their life? If that person elects to forego the treatment in favor of a natural, less painful (albeit slightly quicker) death, is this the moral equivalent of suicide?
I’ve never been too keen on the idea of dying a painful, protracted death. I sort of imagined that when it was “my time to go,” I’d just take a long walk in the woods and not come back. But this acknowledged escapist sentiment is probably not very realistic. I recently got a glimpse of the pain felt by a family that is very dear to me that is facing a difficult end-of-life decision. There’s no political action or religious decree that can alleviate the pain felt by those in this position. The societal crutches of religion and politics are never more useless than when someone is facing death.
My chief complaint is that Christians, who unquestionably have valid societal concerns, have thrown the majority of their efforts into political wrangling and have paid extraordinarily little attention to the people who actually have to struggle through these issues. Over 40 states disallow assisted suicide for the terminally ill. So to the political-religious warriors, I say, “Congratulations. You’re still ahead on this issue by a healthy margin.” But what have we really accomplished? The Christian community has offered precious little wisdom on how to actually deal with end-of-life decisions. Not to worry though. Euthanasia is still illegal, except for in the most liberal of states. I guess that means we win. Never mind the thousands of people who are struggling to figure out how to deal with the greatest challenge they’ve ever faced.
Not every end-of-life situation will be the same, nor will any of them have a simple solution. What is certain, is that every situation will be painful and emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausting for the one facing the transition and for his family and friends.
Perhaps if we spent more time and effort walking with those who are hurting, we wouldn’t need to worry about applying yet another political solution to a spiritual dilemma.