The UK Government are discussing legislation to potentially allow assisted dying for terminally ill adults. Here, apologist Clinton Wilcox shares some of the issues raised by euthanasia

We have discussed this topic on various episodes of Unbelievable (for example, ‘Assisted dying, assisted suicide, or murder: should doctors who save lives be given the power to end them?’ With Dr Ellen Wiebe and Dr Mark Pickering) and the Matters of Life and Death podcast (such as ‘How can Christian doctors approach medical-assisted dying (euthanasia)?’). 


Euthanasia can be a very difficult topic to discuss. Like the topic of abortion, it can lead a lot of people to react emotionally instead of presenting a rational argument for their position, especially if those people are afraid of death or extreme suffering at the end of their life. For Christians, the thought of death can still be a terrifying prospect. But Christians have an assurance that people who hold to non-theistic worldviews do not: there is a life after death where all tears will be wiped away and they will no longer suffer. 

Because of this, they can know that any suffering endured here on Earth is only for a short time compared to an eternity spent in a place where suffering no longer happens. And while it may seem cruel and unloving to argue that human life must not be extinguished, even in the case of extreme suffering, being a Christian, one knows that God is in control of all things and there is a purpose in suffering. As Gilbert Meilaender wrote in Bioethics: A Primer for Christians:

“Suffering is not a good thing, not something we ought to seek for ourselves or others. But it is an evil out of which the God revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus can bring good. We must therefore always be of two minds about it. We should try to care for those who suffer, but we should not imagine that suffering can be eliminated from human life or that it can have no point or purpose in our lives. Nor should we suppose that suffering must be eliminated by any means that is available to us, for a good end does not justify any and every means.” 


Read more:

Assisted dying, assisted suicide, or murder?

Assisted dying in Scotland: A bad law but also an inevitable one?

How can Christian doctors approach medical-assisted dying (euthanasia)?


The sanctity of life

Christians believe life is sacred and inviolable. This is because human beings are unique among God’s creation, being made in God’s very image (Gen 1:26). Aside from “you shall not murder” being one of the Ten Commandments, committing a murder against a human being made in God’s image brought with it the death penalty (Gen 9:6, Lev 24:17). Certain exceptions were given regarding this punishment, such as killing in self-defence (Ex 22:2-3). However, terminal illness or extreme suffering is not given as a legitimate reason to kill another human being.

Of course, Christians want to be as compassionate as possible. In most situations, it is possible to alleviate a person’s suffering through medication. And when a person is nearing the end of his or her life, that person may be put into palliative care where healthcare workers will try to make a person’s remaining days as comfortable as possible. 

But death is never a benefit to a person, even a person in extreme suffering. The only thing that would make the person better is to restore his or her health. By killing someone, the perpetrator is removing any possibility that person could ever recover (through medical or divine intervention). They are not benefiting that sufferer in any way. 

On the contrary, killing someone is the worst harm that can be done to that person because it stops his or her very life and puts an end to someone who is a unique soul with a distinct collection of memories, personality traits, etc. If someone is suffering, the right thing to do is to improve the circumstances, if possible, not to end the life.

Are there any exceptions?

It is important to mention that while it is wrong to kill a human being in that state, the argument against euthanasia does not imply it is always wrong to act in such a way that might hasten someone’s death, nor does it imply one must always act to preserve or increase life. One example would be if someone is in extreme pain and giving him or her more of the medication would ease the pain but shorten the remaining time, it would be permissible to give him or her the medication. The intention would be to ease the pain, not to shorten the life. Shortening his or her life would be a foreseen but unintended consequence of administering the pain medication.

 Another example would be if offering care to someone becomes futile or the burdens of maintaining treatment outweigh the benefits, it would be permissible to stop the treatment. For example, if someone has lost all brain function and his or her body is being kept alive on a respirator, taking the person off the respirator is not an act of killing. The person is already dying but is being kept alive artificially. By taking this person off life support, one is returning him or her to a natural state given the conditions and one is allowing nature to take its course. So, if providing someone care, such as allowing his or her body to continue breathing, is no longer of benefit or is a greater burden than a benefit, it is not wrong to remove that care, knowing the consequences.

Sometimes scientists will refer to someone in this state as ‘brain dead’, but the term can be confusing. A person who is brain dead is dying but not actually dead. That person’s body is still alive and can be kept alive artificially so that his or her body doesn’t fail. But all brain function – higher or lower – has been irreversibly lost, and will never recover. If no actions are taken to keep the body alive, that body will eventually die because the brain is unable to regulate the bodily functions necessary to sustain life. 

Brain death is a medical and legal fiction scientists use to make it ethically acceptable to keep a person’s body alive so that the organs can be preserved for transplantation. Neurobiologist Maureen Condic wrote an article in which she goes into more detail about the scientific concept of brain death. In the 1960s, she explains, when the life-saving potential of organ transplantation became much more apparent, scientists reevaluated their concept of death.

It is important to distinguish brain death from being in a persistent vegetative state. A person in a persistent vegetative state has lost all higher brain function, so he or she would be unaware of what is going on in the surrounding environment, but the lower brain functions are still preserved. So, a person in such a state can move from wakefulness to sleep, continue to breathe independently, etc (Agneta Sutton, Christian Bioethics: A Guide for the Perplexed). 

It is extremely rare, but people in persistent vegetative states have been able to recover from that state. The important difference for this discussion and a consideration of ethics is that a person who is brain dead is dying and will die unless kept alive by artificial means. A person who is in a persistent vegetative state is alive and, while he or she must be helped to stay alive with a feeding tube, will not die naturally unless actively killed. 

A famous example of this is Terri Schiavo, a woman in a persistent vegetative state who was being fed through a feeding tube. She was legally murdered when her husband petitioned the state, against the wishes of her parents and brother, to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube. A long legal battle ensued, but ultimately Schiavo was forced to starve to death, being denied food and water.

Human life versus animal life

A common response heard in discussions of euthanasia regards animals. Society deems it permissible to put suffering animals to sleep, says the euthanasia advocate, to “put them out of their misery”. Why would it not be permissible to do the same with human beings? The answer, of course, is near the beginning of this article. 

Human life is sacred and inviolable, as humans are made in God’s image. There is no such prescription against killing animals. In fact, whereas murdering a human resulted in the death penalty, killing an animal merely resulted in having to repay the owner what the animal was worth. In this case, an animal is put to sleep to end its suffering specifically because animal life is not sacred. 

Human life is sacred, and scripture provides very strong prescriptions against taking such a life, with only a few exceptions. Terminal illness or extreme suffering are not exceptions granted in scripture.


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Dying with dignity 

Another common rejoinder one hears is that living to the end of one’s life, to where one is no longer independent and must rely on others to take care of oneself, including bathroom needs and changing clothes, is undignified. People should be allowed to “die with dignity” and decide for themselves when and how they die.

A major issue with this kind of objection is that the idea of a person choosing for his or herself when to die is merely illusory. Those individuals are not choosing for themselves: rather, their hand is being forced by their illness to take their own life. They are still dying due to circumstances beyond their control. 

Additionally, this idea of “dying with dignity” is wrong-headed. Encountering a problem with dignity is all about how one faces that problem. Killing oneself is not a way out of the situation – the person is dying, and killing him or herself just speeds up the process. 

That person dies with dignity when, instead of taking the easy way out and killing themselves before having to depend on others for intimate needs, that person recognises that these are things all people must do and therefore chooses to go through them with poise and refinement. It is part of the human condition. Humans begin as babies, needing parents to change them, feed them, etc, and then when the parents age, they begin to have these same needs and now it is the children’s turn to repay the parents for caring for them when they are unable to care for themselves. 

By killing oneself, one is robbing one’s children of the experience to pay back the help received in raising them as well as robbing one’s children and other loved ones of the time they could have with the person at the end of that person’s life.

 About this issue, much more could be said. As with most controversial issues, there are many things to discuss, many arguments and objections one might consider. But for the purpose of this article, attention was paid primarily to the method by which Christians might respond to or deal with end-of-life issues such as euthanasia.

To briefly reiterate, human life is sacred and inviolable. Humans are made in God’s image, so one must always reduce suffering as much as one is able, but must also recognise one’s inability to eliminate it altogether. 

As death is the ultimate violence one human can do to another, no person ought ever to kill a fellow human, even in the effort to eliminate suffering. To do so is to eliminate the sufferer, but does not restore that person to health. And saying that one must never take a life does not mean one must always act in a way that preserves or extends life, especially if care has become futile or more of a burden than a benefit.

Issues around the end of life are not pleasant to think about but they are essential, as all people will deal with them someday, whether with a loved one or for oneself. Because of that, it behoves all people to think deeply about this issue.


Clinton Wilcox is a staff apologist for Life Training Institute. He specializes in training pro-life people to make the pro-life case more effectively and persuasively. He is also a certified speaker and mentor for Justice for All. You can read his blog and follow him on Twitter