In 2006 Sean Davison, a professor at the biotechnology department of the University of the Western Cape (UWC), visited his aging mother, Patricia, in Dunedin, New Zealand. Davison’s mother, then 85, was a retired general practitioner and psychiatrist. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2004. Davison travelled to New Zealand to care for her in her final stages.

Through a series of circumstances, detailed in his book Before We Say Goodbye, Davison assisted his mother in ending her life. He was arrested and tried before a jury in New Zealand, where he was ultimately sentenced to five months’ home detention in Dunedin for “counselling and procuring attempted suicide.”

The debate

The euthanasia and assisted suicide debate is nothing new. The Euthanasia Society of England was formed in 1935 and its sister society in the United States was formed in 1938. In the ancient world, Pythagoreans opposed and Stoics favoured euthanasia. There are well-documented cases of euthanasia in India and Bali.

One reason for the increasing contemporary pressure to revisit euthanasia laws is advancement in medical technology, which allows for longer life spans than much of recorded history. The American Census Bureau has found that, since 1990, average life expectancy has increased more than fifty percent, from forty-nine to almost seventy today. This is attended by increased medical and frail care bills.

Defining our terms

It may prove helpful at this point to define some terms relating to this practice.

“Assisted suicide” is when one individual helps another to take his or her own life because the latter lacks the knowledge, courage or physical capacity to perform the deed themselves.

“Physician-assisted suicide” is when a physician has provided information, prescription or equipment to secure death, knowing full well the patient’s intention to end his or her own life.

“Euthanasia” refers to one person, motivated by compassion, intentionally and actively killing another person in order to end that person’s suffering. Euthanasia is often subdivided into three categories: (1) “Voluntary euthanasia,” in which the patient requests assistance in dying; (2) “involuntary euthanasia” where a competent person is killed without his or her explicit request; and (3) “nonvoluntary euthanasia,” in which a competent person has made the decision for a mentally incompetent individual.

Technically, euthanasia and assisted suicide are not the same thing, though from a general perspective the issues are largely the same.

Arguments in favour of euthanasia

Broadly speaking, two major arguments in favour of euthanasia are promoted. Each of these arguments has numerous tentacles of its own, but it will be helpful to just generalise.

The first argument has to do with the patient’s autonomy, his right to self-determination. A human being, it is argued, is the captain of his soul. Sean Davison reasoned this way: “If a person wants to die, if they do it through clinics that have all the checks and balances to make sure there are no pressures and they’re making a conscious decision, why shouldn’t they? I’d like to choose my time. It should be an individual decision.”

Those in favour of euthanasia often turn a “right” to die into a virtual duty to die. They argue that self-sacrifice is often the most commendable course of action. Why should family be made to suffer—emotionally and financially—when a quick and painless alternative is available? Surely it is the responsibility of the sufferer to think about his or her loved ones, and to make the tough decision that the loved ones may not be willing or able to make?

The second major argument is compassion for the sufferer. If we put animals out of their misery—and to do so is considered “humane”—should we not do the same for humans? Why should we force another human being—a loved one—to undergo unrelieved suffering? Why should we force loved ones to watch the prolonged suffering of a terminally ill mother? Surely it is more merciful to end the suffering than it is to prolong it? In this equation, the end justifies the means. At issue is quality of life. Life is not necessarily deemed worth living if a certain quality cannot be enjoyed. No one should have to endure endless suffering, and we should do all we can to end pain.

Biblical considerations

There are other arguments in favour of assisted suicide, but most of them fall into one of the two above categories. There are many biblical avenues we can take in response to these arguments, but let me just briefly reply to each of the above arguments.

First, autonomy, biblically speaking, is a myth. Human life was created, and is therefore owned, by God. He alone has the right to do as he pleases with his creation. Because man is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27) human life is sacred. It has dignity, not because of the nature of humanity itself, but because of the nature of God. The Bible teaches that human life begins at conception, and that all human life—regardless of age or disability—is sacred. All human life is to be valued and guarded because it reflects the image of God.

While there are biblically-mandated exceptions (self-defence, capital punishment, etc.) the Bible condemns killing in both the Old (Exodus 20:13) and the New Testament (Matthew 19:18).

To say that human life is sacred is not to suggest that the ultimate prohibition against euthanasia lies in the value of human life itself. Ultimately, we frown upon humanity’s professed “autonomy” because it contradicts God’s sovereignty. We are not autonomous, but are accountable to a sovereign God who has outlawed the taking of human life. His law is absolute, and where he has spoken we have no right to speak.

Second, “mercy” (at least as it is defined by those in favour of euthanasia) should not necessarily be our ultimate pursuit. While God certainly does expect us to show mercy to others (Matthew 9:13; Matthew 12:7), it is never merciful to contradict (or to tempt others to contradict) God’s word.

Further, the mercy argument tends to overlook the fact that God has a design for suffering. This does not mean that we must idolise or welcome suffering. Suffering is the result of sin, and it is therefore right to loathe suffering. But it is not always God’s design to deliver us (immediately) from suffering. There is often great value in suffering (see Romans 5:3–5; 1 Peter 1:6–9; 2 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Corinthians 12:10; consider also the story of Job).

We live in a world in which the pursuit of comfort has effectively overridden anything that might cause discomfort. Suffering, we are led to believe, is absolutely unacceptable and we must therefore pursue any means possible to relieve it—even if that means is expedited death.

In this scheme of things, death is seen as something of a saviour. It delivers us from the suffering that we experience in life. And if we can hasten the coming of the saviour, surely we should do so?

But this again stands in stark contrast to biblical truth, which not only reveals that God alone is sovereign over life and death (Job 14:5; Ecclesiastes 3:2; James 4:13–15), but which also views death as a wholly unnatural intruder. Death is the result of sin (Genesis 3:14–19; Romans 5:12). It is our last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). In reality, no death is “dignified.” Death is the final great indignity that must come to all mankind.

When the psalmist suffered, he did not ask to die, but to be delivered from death (Psalm 22:19-21). Death is no saviour. For the believer, death has positive results (it ushers us into God’s presence), but that does not give the believer the right to hasten death. Even as he suffered, and knew how beneficial death would be, Paul was eager to endure suffering that he might more effectively minister to others (Philippians 1:21–24). For the believer, the resurrection, not death, is our hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). The biblical view of death is wholly unfavourable.

If anything else is to be said about our quest for full relief of suffering, it is surely to point us to the cross of Christ. At Calvary, Jesus was “offered … wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink” (Matthew 27:33–34). The gall that was mixed with the wine was a narcotic, designed to deaden the pain of the crucified one. Jesus was offered anaesthetic—a means to relieve his suffering—but refused it. His suffering had a purpose, and he submitted to the will of God.

Much more could be said on the matter at hand, and more will no doubt need to be said on many fronts in the future. The South African Constitution already guards the right of a mother to terminate the life of her unborn baby without consequence, and we can be sure in coming years that the issue of assisted suicide will be on the agenda. Will we be prepared to speak to the issue when the time comes? We will only be able to do so if we begin now to formulate in our minds a biblical response to what God calls evil.