The Right to Die

Christianity often disappoints but seldom surprises me, at least until recently.

You’ve no doubt heard of Brittany Maynard, the terminally ill woman who elected to end her life on her own terms, rather than spiral into deeper levels of degradation, suffering, and confusion. Whether she acted sensibly and within her rights is sort of a no-brainer. If she were a St. Bernard, after all, not to euthanize her would be considered inhumane. We are morally obliged to shield our pets from excessive suffering, so one would assume the same would be true and then some for dying creatures who can elect to end their own.

Even Christianity, whose holy text gets many of the easiest ethical questions wrong, should not be confused on this issue. In the absence of any misguided Bible verses to confound the matter, a Christian is free to join the unbeliever on the side of compassion.

Their being wrong in this case is not incidental. It is another example of a sneaky truth: irrational beliefs which seem harmless can yield unexpectedly nasty results. Let’s take a look at which seemingly benign beliefs conspire to produce the blunder in question:

Humans are not animals. Our lives are uniquely precious to God, and he has a plan for each of us.

God’s plan for us might involve suffering to our own spiritual or moral betterment.

Killing one’s self denies the possibility that God will heal.

Refuting these propositions gets one exactly nowhere. Religion has fought tooth-and-nail to shift the burden of proof to the godless. In our world, since one can’t prove God can’t heal, it is fair and acceptable to assert he can. This is well expressed in the refrain of one of my loved ones in many of our discussions: “I still don’t know it’s not true.”

Since a productive discussion on the truth of these claims is more or less off the table, we are left repeating our stance on every other ethical issue from gay marriage to contraceptives: people are entitled to their beliefs, however ill-conceived, but absolutely not welcome to impose them on others. This short order is often too much to ask. Many women are denied health coverage for birth control and gays forbidden to marry in the US because a majority of people here believe, or at least suspect, the Jewish deity Yahweh disapproves of these practices. This disgraceful state of affairs is exactly what to expect when one allows “harmless” religious propositions to govern our conversations on ethics.

I’d like to return to the not-so-harmless beliefs which, fed into the Christian morality machine, can yield the absolute “thou shalt not end one’s own life.” Notice that none of them actually entail an absolute prohibition on euthanasia, not even in conjunction. It could be Yahweh’s plan that I suffer for a little while and then, in an act of faith, hurry to my death without fear. His will is, as we are often fondly reminded, highly mysterious. We’re talking about a god who places so much significance on our sex organs, it’s a wonder he didn’t make them to positively glow. Who can claim to know his ways?

Since religions are so endeared to absolutes, here is one in return:  your beliefs about any deity ought not to bear on others’ healthcare decisions, what contracts they enter, or whether a physician should be allowed to help terminate their lives when living becomes unbearable. Practice your religion in any way you see fit, so long as it fails to infringe upon others’ rights or muddy up important discussions on right and wrong.

In reality, these beliefs do bear, and heavily, on such matters, and this has me  genuinely disheartened. But I’m most disheartened, demoralized even, by this: even Christians who have the right of this easy issue would likely be swayed to the wrong side in an instant if the Bible were more explicit on the topic. For just a moment, I was grateful the Bible contained one less bad idea until I remembered that the content of our beliefs isn’t the problem – it’s how we form them that really matters. A mind that uses an authoritative text to make its moral judgments is incurably deficient. I wouldn’t trust such a person to handle my food, let alone write my laws and supervise my medical decisions. Yet we are forced to cope with precisely that reality.

It’s also depressing, not to mention boring, that Christians on the right side of this topic feel the need to retro-fit their argument with a religious justification. It’s not enough to offer a fair argument – “That’s between her and God” and “The Bible doesn’t specifically forbid mercy killing” are common admissions from Christians who can’t bring themselves to agree that no one, under any circumstances, should receive help to flee suffering in death. The Bible doesn’t forbid it? So what? If it did, would right and wrong suddenly swap places?

You can experience pain of an intensity and duration that would drive a Shaolin monk insane, lose your faculties to a degree you would find humiliating, and many Christians today would insist you should receive no assistance to humanely end your own life. Their internal convictions are once again foisted on you, this time in your hour of greatest need. When you most require help, you’ll often find it from others, Christian or not, until your rights and needs conflict with the Bible or the Qur’an or the Brahmanical texts, depending on which continent you’re on, at which point you’re dead out of luck. There is admittedly a consistent internal logic to this. If God inspired the text, then it must be my error if it seems cruel or bizarre. Who am I to judge otherwise?

Well in that case, who are you to judge that your favorite holy book is an infallible source of moral wisdom? Whether you allow compassion or a textbook to guide your moral decisions, you are in any case relying on your judgement. The pitfalls of religious dogma are too numerous to list, as are the unfailing benefits of compassion. I’ll have more compassion, please, and keep it coming. Hold the dogma every damn time.

I earned my Bachelor's in English at the University of St. Thomas in MN with a minor in Philosophy. I'm a former evangelical Christian who enjoys reading and writing about evolution, psychology, and religious issues.

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