Since religion concerns itself with issues of life, death and morality, it is not surprising that for many people, religious beliefs form the foundation of their views on euthanasia. Alas, more and more mortals spend their final hours hooked up to bewildering electronic equipment, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, lit up by fluorescent lights in a sterile setting, and overwhelmed by their vulnerability. This spiritual void was never the way in which they had imagined they would die.1
Globally, the problem seems to be that sectors of different religions are fierce in their belief and conviction that it is against God’s will to take one’s own life or to have it voluntarily ended by others. Some religions also maintain that suffering is an aspect of all human life which itself was of God’s creation. Consequently they contend that putting an end to suffering is a violation of God’s will.
It is one of the prevalent misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Western religious culture that The Bible forbids suicide. There is no such prohibition in either the Old or New Testaments. Indeed, although about eleven cases of suicides are mentioned in these two texts, there are no passages commenting on the morality of such an act nor is there even any explicit examination of the ethical issues which might be involved.
It was St Augustine in the Fourth Century who made the first Christian formulations against suicide: “Patricide is more wicked than homicide, but suicide is the most wicked of all.”2 For Augustine the Resurrection had changed Man’s perspective: Tolerating suicide when one could be brought back to life seemed like a defiance of God’s will. During the early phases of Christianity a self-chosen death had been a goal to which many of the devout aspired. The number of converted Christian martyrs and mass suicides (among Jews who had converted to Christianity) rose so sharply that Rabbis decided to forbid public mourning for those who died by their own hands. Jewish leaders then refused to allow the bodies of such victims to be buried in their hallowed grounds.
The Italian philosopher and theologian, St Thomas Aquinas, ranked among the most influential thinkers of medieval Scholasticism, considered the problems of suicide at great length. He wrote “it follows that the words ‘Thou shalt not kill’ refer to the killing of a man — not another man therefore; not even thyself. For he who kills himself, kills nothing else than a man.”3
The Catholic Church, as it gained control in Europe, held that every human being was the creation of God and that consequently to kill oneself was to deny God and to deny God’s right over our lives. Suicide was deemed morally wrong. Catholicism taught that suffering had a place in God’s plan in that it permitted those in pain to share Christ’s final agony. Rome also continued to hold that those who insisted that they had a right to die were denying the essence of their fundamental relationship with God.
Only after the Reformation did it become possible for thinkers to reconsider the question of suicide. Thomas More wrote of euthanasia in his great work, Utopia, although it is not known whether he was intending to endorse the practice. Caspar Questel, a German recorder, was among the first to examine the different ways which, in effect, were being used to hasten death for the dying but which he thought were against nature and against God’s will.4 However, gradually, during the Age of Enlightenment suicide and euthanasia became more acceptable to some of the European Protestant sects.
Jewish law forbade euthanasia in all forms and was considered an act of homicide. The life of a man is not “his” — rather, it belongs to the One who granted him life. It could therefore be reclaimed only by the true Owner of that life. Despite any noble intentions, an act of mercy-killing was regarded as a flagrant intervention of God’s will. In the 20th century the Jewish outlook on euthanasia and assisted suicide has become divided along denominational lines. The Orthodox continue to reject it while both Reform and Secular Judaism are beginning to support forms of “mercy killing.”
Islam continues to categorically forbid all forms of suicide and any action that may help someone else to commit suicide. The precedent for this approach came directly from the Prophet Muhammad who refused to bless the body of a man who had committed suicide or to permit him from being buried in hallowed ground. Given the ease with which a few outlaw Muslims today commit murder, one cannot help but wonder if the ancient commandments of the Koran can continue to hold their meaning.
In Japan suicide has not traditionally been seen as a sin. Falling on one’s sword was understood as essential under certain circumstances. Shinto, the dominant religion, now generally tends to regard euthanasia as unwelcome but acceptable under certain circumstances. However, the prolongation of life by artificial means in hospitals is regarded as offensive by both Shinto and Buddhist organizations.
Some Eastern religions, such as the Buddhist, believe we have many lives and the way we live each life in part is determined by past lives and will impact on our future lives. Cutting life short can thus interfere with our progress towards ultimate liberation. Euthanasia is consequently denied as a way out of suffering. It is regarded as immoral to destroy human life, irrespective of the quality of the individual’s motive.
In surveying how these different religious groups around the world have considered euthanasia and assisted suicide over many centuries, it is evident that these are opposed, and have been influential in having governments pass laws forbidding them. This should be viewed from the perspective that both governments and religions have always sought to exert control on individuals as well as on the population. The steady decline of religious power in the 20th century has had a profound impact on our views on euthanasia. After centuries of acceptance, public opinion has been shifting with the startling advances in medical science. Governments may gradually follow, much as they have on other social issues like homosexuality.
To shorten the “throes of death” is seen by increasing numbers of people as a way of showing respect to a life approaching its natural end. Humanitarianism holds that we should at least try to spare those in their last months a sequence of pain-filled and degrading physical and psychological humiliations. We can pretend that a life artificially kept going month after month by a battery of high tech machines is worthwhile, but should we not re-examine such attitudes?5 Fortunately for the patients, chronic suffering in such situations has been reduced by the widespread use of morphine and pain killers.
Some fifty years ago, the French sociologist Alfred Fabre-Luce summed the challenge facing many of us brilliantly: “Man is born to act, believe, venture. Let us save him from the state of despair in which, as the body triumphs over the mind, he ceases to hope for recovery and can no longer sublimate his suffering. To shorten the transition is not to go against the divine plan. To prolong a state of degradation, to pit oneself against an imminent and ineluctable death by misusing the resources of science — it is surely that which is an act of impiety.”6
1 See: Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End, (2014)
2St Augustine, On Patience, c.425 AD
3Thomas Aquinas, De Civitate Dei, 20
4Caspar Questel, De pulvinari morientibus non subtrahend (On the pillow of which the dying should not be deprived) 1678
5End-of-life Care, The Economist, October 4, 2014, p. 92
6Alfred Fabre-Luce, Man or Insects? (1965) p. 82