What are the moral and religious differences, if any, between euthanasia and suicide? Why may these distinctions be important?
The ethical question still remains ‘Can it ever be right to kill, even with the intension to relieve suffering?’ In general euthanasia means good death. It has become almost exclusively applied to the deliberate ending of life, with the desire to avoid necessary pain by a doctor who thinks that death is of benefit to the patient. Suicide is self-destruction, it is the direct and deliberate taking of one’s own life. It is possible that there are moral and religious differences between them, and if so are they really important?, a theory I propose to examine.
There are various attitudes toward euthanasia and suicide which have changed over the years in both society and religion. Religiously, the traditional Roman Catholic Church is pro-life; it does not accept either euthanasia or suicide absolutely. This is because it follows the Ten Commandments ‘ Thou shall not murder’1 and considers suicide and euthanasia as a grave and mortal sin. The chief Christian argument is that one’s life is the property of God, and to destroy that life is to wrongly assert dominion over what is God’s, therefore euthanasia and suicide is always wrong and cannot be justified in any circumstances.
The modern Protestant is pro-choice, they see euthanasia as the ‘lesser of two evils’ and so it should be judge on its merit. In other words, neither option is ideal, but euthanasia might be a better option than going through the unnecessary suffering and pain. Situation ethics which proclaimed by Fletcher2 can be applied. He states that decision-making should be based upon the circumstances of a particular situation, and not upon fixed Law. The only absolute is Love (Agape Love). Love should be the motive behind every decision. As long as Love is your intention, the end justifies the means.
Christians argue that because suicide involves self-murder, then anyone who commits it is sinning, it is the same as if a person murdered another human being. In the Bible there is, however, no specific verse that clearly states that both suicide and euthanasia lead directly to Hell. Yet because Jesus Christ took the punishment for the sins of mankind, and suicide is seen as a sin, the result would be that the person who commits suicide would not be culpable, and that all his sins would be covered by Christ 3. Consequently, there is a growing belief that Christians who commit suicide are still granted a place Heaven.
Before 1961 unsuccessful suicide attempts could be punished with up to two years in prison as suicide was seen as a public act. The 1961 Suicide Act states4 that is no longer a criminal offence to attempt to commit suicide, because suicide is now seen as a private act. It is an individual’s right to choose to end their life, to use the free will argument- attributed to God, ‘that is, he has the capacity to grow into the likeness of God through the use of free will.’ The free will argument is supported by the liberal Christians too, as J S Mill put it ‘Over himself, over his own body and mind the individuals is sovereign’5 However, voluntary euthanasia was only legalised in 1935 in Britain when two doctors could agree that euthanasia can take place, and the majority of medics now seem to believe that as long as a person is able to communicate with others and is not in unbearable pain they should not be helped to terminate their life.
So far, the distinction between suicide and euthanasia is that euthanasia involves another person in the ‘killing’, where as suicide does not. This is important because although in essence suicide does not include anyone else there are cases when suicide can bring about deaths in fatal accidents caused by jumping off a bridge on to a motorway for example. There are also family members to consider who may be left quite hurt and bewildered by shock of a sudden suicide. It is likely that a suicide person may gain more sympathy if they take their life quietly without seeking attention as in the case of Dr David Kelly6.
Moral dilemmas surround assisted euthanasia, the ‘assistant’ being torn between watching a loved one suffer or putting them out of their misery and risking imprisonment. Euthanasia is less likely to be as sudden as a suicide. This gives the people time to prepare for the inevitable, to say their final goodbyes thus it is less of a shock.
The majority of the religious views reflect to the writing on St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas7, who were able to officiate their own personal beliefs, rather than support them through scriptural account. St. Augustine declared that “life and its sufferings are divinely ordained by God and must be borne accordingly.”8 In the thirteenth century, the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas who discusses suicide in the context of justice and Natural Law represented the intolerance for suicide.
According to him, suicide violated the biblical commandment against killing and was ultimately the most dangerous of sins. He wrote ‘Wherefore suicide is contrary to the inclination of nature, and to charity whereby every man should love himself. Hence suicide is always a mortal sin, as being contrary to the natural law and to charity.’9 These views were kept going through out the Middle Ages and the Reformation, and not only resulted in a refusal of Christian funeral for those who committed suicide, but also allowed the taking away of their property and desecration of the body.
Historically however, suicide and assisted suicide were commonly practiced in order to avoid torture or abuse. In early Christianity celebrated virgins committed suicide to avoid being rapped. Saint Pelagia10, who feared the loss of her chastity jumped from a roof to escape a Roman soldier, was later respected for her suicide. Her decision would be wrong in the religious aspects, as they believe in the sanctity of life, as only God has the right to take life away. On the other hand her decision would be right in the moral aspects, because suicide at the time was the only way out to save her from disgrace.
In considering the action of Captain Oates who left his companions in the Antarctic to try to give them a better chance of survival, most people would praise him as he ‘lay down his life for his friends’11 but it was non-the-less, suicide. When his selfless action became known to the world, he received great honour and respect. Does this mean that if someone commits suicide for the benefit of others, it is much more acceptable than committing suicide for their own benefit? According to Plato12 in some way this could be called altruistic suicide which means suicide as an ideological or selfless act
Today, both Judaism and Islam teach that human life is sacred, they do not accept euthanasia or suicide under any circumstances. The Muslim Law states that suicide
and euthanasia are forbidden totally. All life it is given by Allah and Allah chooses how long each person will live. It is a known fact however that even terrorist bombers (Twin Towers 2001) believed that they were following the Qu’ran and Allah’s wishes by defending their faith. Although this interpretation is open to question they are still glorified and idolised. Islam still believes that human beings should not interfere with Allah’s plan, this is a similar idea to the Roman Catholic Church who disregard the Law of Double effect in which doctors can give out pain-relieving drugs in order to hasten the death.
The Jewish Law forbids euthanasia and regards it as murder. There is no exception and it makes no difference even if the person concerned wanted to die. However, if a patients is certain to die, and is only being kept alive by a ventilator, it is acceptable to switch off the ventilator since it is holding back the natural process of death.
The avoidance of pain is generally the main motive of euthanasia and suicide, typically physical pain in euthanasia and mental pain in suicide.
More youngsters are committing suicide, with the recent news in Bridgend and surrounding area. Between Jane 2, 2007 and February 15, 2008 sixteen young people aged 15 to 27 had committed a suicide with unknown reasons. Police maintained that there was ‘no evidence’ that any of the deaths were linked. However, that the town was at the centre of a suicide ‘cluster’ appeared undeniable.13 Some people believe that young people have encouraged each other on social networking website. Most victims were members of the Bebo and Facebook, nevertheless no evidence emerged that they had all been encouraged commit suicide on the internet. Internet networking sites are said to be creating a ‘cult of immortality’14 and among young people with the current news on the ‘predators telling children how to kill themselves on the internet’15 and the deaths of young people in Bridgend.
Although the reasons for young people to committee a suicide are debatable, nonetheless from either the religious or moral point of view none of the deaths are acceptable. This is because life should not be taken ‘randomly’ with no reason, as life is sacred. Perhaps the moral issue here lies within society. Teenagers are easily influenced and so could be taken in by internet chat rooms. Could it be that the ‘traditional family’ set up is so changed that teenagers prefer to talk to a machine rather than their parents. A really desperate youngster would do better to talk to the Samaritans rather than Facebook, but is this just a question of choice or lack of guidance? Interestingly a recent survey has been done which revealed that teenagers spend up to 35 hours a week on the computer but only 35 minutes talking to their parents.16 From the religious point of view there cases would consider to be wrong, Plato stated ‘we must not put an end to ourselves until God send us some compulsion like the one we are facing now’17 .
With euthanasia, reasons are often more easily identified. In January 25, 2006 Ann Turner, a terminally ill patient went to Switzerland to commit euthanasia, ‘unbuoyed by faith’, into life’s last great journey was not the act of a coward. 18 All rational thinking would say that she had a ‘good’ death, free from pain, all ends tied up, and letters written and surrounded by the family who supported her decision. This case shows clearly that euthanasia can be taken happily with support and without any doubt, therefore it can be justified?
Her decision can also be defined as taking an easy way out. Nevertheless her decision is still morally considered to be right by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Scotland19 This particular group believes that everybody should have ultimate control over their own lives. This Society believes that the choice of whether or not to continue living is an extremely personal one. In contrast the religious view point would consider her action as questionable, this is because they believe only God has the right to take lives away, as He is the one who created it.
Motives must be clear when contemplatins euthanasia, decisions should be made in the best interest of the patient, no one else. The case study of Michael Schiavo brings this very issue into focus. In March 2005, Michael Schiavo was able to let his wife Terrie who was beyond any meaningful rescues die after a 15 year battle.20 This is only because he wanted to make Jodi his new wife while his children were still young. After Terri died, he did just that. This case, would not be accepted by society or religions even the Protestants. This is because Schiavo did not put Terri in the first place, so it was not done for the benefit of her, instead his. A ‘pro-life’ activist even circulated an offer of $250,000 to anyone who would kill Schiavo.
Others might view the motives of Michael Schiavo more favourably as he had cared for his wife for 15 years, surely he deserved to find happiness else where. Also many people who have been told that death is inevitable for them have defied the expectations of medical experts, by living on much longer than they were expected to, or recovering, either partly or fully. The Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Scotland states that it is wrong for the state, or any religious group, to have the right to force a person to continue living against their will. Therefore euthanasia is ethically acceptable, as Richard Swinburne stated that ‘death us just the end of a good state, life (and in any case, one of which God may choose to give us more, by giving us a life after death)’ 21
In November 3, 2005 ‘a mercy mother killed her Down’s syndrome son’ by suffocating him with a plastic bag. She was sentenced to prison for two years, suspended for 18 months. Mr Justice Gross told her ‘the pressures you faced were extreme’ while he stated all human life was sacrosanct, her case had ‘exceptional factors’ and ‘the merciful and right course’ was to suspend her sentence.22 This case can be morally justified although this was killing rather than suicide or euthanasia, as the mother did it of the benefit of her son.
Overall both euthanasia and suicide are unacceptable in any circumstances from the religious view point. This is because they believe that all humans are made ‘in the image of God’23 therefore ‘the only one who has the right to take life is the one who created it’ (Mother Teresa)24 in other words God. As David Hume has stated since God is omnibenevolent, He would not allow His creation to suffer physical and mental torment for no reason and to no avail. This suggests that ‘All evil is either sin or the punishment for sin’25 this can interpret differently, Augustine made the important point that all humans, including innocent babies, deserve to suffer because all humans were present ‘in the loins of Adam’26 so we can always remember and learn from it. On the whole this is all part of God’s plan.
Morally euthanasia and suicide are not always considered as wrong or right, it looks more deeply on the situation rather than just applying on the fixed laws or rules, which are more like the pro-life religions. As mentioned before, euthanasia is always decided when facing terminal illness (physical pain), there is no hope and no chance of getting better. Euthanasia is often the last resort, there is no other way out. Whereas suicide is mostly related to emotional pain such as pressure that cannot be coped with, but there is more likely to be hope and the possibility of another way out. Mainly it depends on how individuals interpret and solve the problem, so suicide could be considered as the choice of giving-up in order to avoid facing the reality. Patients who have incurable illness have no choice, everything is done for them and they are going to die anyway.
Taken as a whole, the distinctions between euthanasia and suicide are not so important, this is because it is really an individual matter whether they are believers or not. It is very hard to apply rules to reality. It is extremely difficult to understand the physical or emotional pain that people suffer. Before any decisions can be made to end their lives whether through euthanasia or suicide, they must have struggled and suffered hard enough already. Therefore, we should give them as much compassion as we can. At the end of the day, it is their decisions we can always advise them, but we cannot make the decision for them, so why not support their last decision they made in their lives. Besides if God is a forgiving God as we are told, in the Bible it says “Take courage my son, your sins are forgiven.”27, a believer may still find a place with God in the after life.
People should be caution in making any moral judgement about anyone so predisposed as to want to take their own lives that does not even affect you. This is because it is difficult to know what is actually morally right or wrong and morals cannot be derived from nature as David Hume 28 has suggested. Euthanasia and suicide are based upon moral and religious beliefs that are sometimes impossible to be logical about as, these arguments are related to cultural values and practise.
But, they can change over time, so some practices that were considered barbaric before, are now accept. It has become more difficult to set out moral principles to guide people in the position or right direction (more active Samaritans) because much of society struggles to find its ‘moral compass’ Although the ‘dominance’ of the church has been criticised in the past it did create a stability effect when considering moral issues. Without this influence one might ask where such ‘moral guidance’ may be found (surely not on the internet). Even so society should show compassion to others even if their decisions were not morally or religiously sound.
In general the moral and religious distinctions between suicide and euthanasia are not important simply because it is a very personal matter, we cannot control people’s minds and actions surely that person has considered enough to come to the decision. It is their life, for certain they would not play any jokes on it, once you are dead, and there is no going back. It is easy to write the rules down, but it is extremely difficult to apply to the reality in different situations.
David Cook – The Moral Maze – SPCK 1999
Dewar – Religious through diagrams – OUP 2002
Harper Collins – The Good News Bible
John Lockyer – Philosophy of Religion for A Level (new edition) – Nelson Thornes 2002
Tyler and Reid – As Religious studies -Edexcel Pearsa
Wilcockson – Issues of Life and Death – Hodder & Stoughton 1999
The Daily Telegraph, Tuesday March 18 2005 -Michael Schiavo made the decision for Terrie to commit euthanasia
The Daily Telegraph, Thursday November 3 2005 – ‘A mercy mother killed her Down’s syndrome son’
The Daily Telegraph, Monday January 26 2006 – Ann Turner went to Switzerland to commit euthanasia
The Daily Telegraph, Saturday February 16, 2008 – Suicide in Bridgend
The Daily Telegraph, Saturday February 17, 2008 – Suicide in Bridgend
The Daily Telegraph, Saturday February 18, 2008 – Suicide in Bridgend
BBC – Thought for the Day, 21 February 2008
FT. Dr. J. Sackhs Chief Rabbi – Thought for the day Radio 4 April 18, 2008
1 The Good News Bible (The Ten Commandments)
2 Philosophy of Religious for A Level (new edition)
3 The Good News Bible (2 Corinthians 5:21)
5 Issues of Death and Life
10 The Moral Maze
11 The Good News Bible
12 Issues of Life and Death
13 From the Daily Telegraph, Saturday February 16, 2008
14 From the Daily Telegraph, Saturday February 17, 2008
15 From the Daily Telegraph, Saturday February 18, 2008
16 FT. Dr. J. Sackhs Chief Rabbi Thought for the day Radio 4 April 18, 2008
17 Religious Studies As
18 From the Daily Telegraph, Monday January 26 2006
20 From the Daily Telegraph, Tuesday March 18 2005
21 Religious Studies As
22 From the Daily Telegraph, Thursday November 3 2005
23 The Good News Bible (Genesis 1:26)
25 Religions through diagram
26 Philosophy of Religious for A Level (new edition)
27 The Good News Bible (Matthew 9:2)
28 Religious Studies As