Death with Dignity laws allow a terminally ill patient to hasten an inevitable and unavoidable death. While many faith traditions adhere to ancient traditions and understandings of physical life’s final journey, modern medical technology has opened the door for faith leaders to actively reconsider some beliefs.
Death with Dignity laws offer dying individuals an opportunity to ponder an important final life question: “What is the meaning of my life?” For many, this is a profoundly spiritual question to which answers come, not when an individual is consumed by a flurry of doctor’s appointments, treatments or tests, but in the comfort of solitude when an individual feels at peace.
As the leading edge of public policy working to ensure the rights of patients on this important final journey, Death with Dignity is not only a legal issue, but a cultural and spiritual issue as well. Some faith traditions have embraced Death with Dignity as an ultimate act of compassion, and others reject it is as morally bankrupt practice.
Below are summaries of viewpoints of the differing faith traditions on Death with Dignity. There is as much diversity among different faith traditions as there is between them.
Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, has stated that, although “there is a very strong compassionate case” for physician-assisted dying, the Anglican church remains opposed to the practice.
The American Baptists Churches and Southern Baptist Convention differ in their statements regarding assisted dying. The American Baptists have adopted the policy “to advocate within the medical community for increased emphasis on the caring goals of medicine which preserve the dignity and minimize the suffering of the individual and respect personal choice for end of life care.” The Southern Baptists state the practice violates the sanctity of human life.
The teachings of the Buddha don’t explicitly deal with assisted dying, but the Buddha himself showed tolerance of suicide by monks in two cases. Buddhists are not unanimous in their view of physician-assisted dying. The Japanese Buddhist tradition includes many stories of suicide by monks; suicide was used as a political weapon by Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war. In Buddhism, the way life ends has a profound impact on the way the new, reincarnated life will begin. So a person’s state of mind at the time of death is important: their thoughts should be selfless and enlightened, free of anger, hate or fear. This suggests that suicide is only approved for people who have achieved enlightenment and that the rest of us should avoid it.
The official position of the Roman Catholic Church is strict: killing of a human being, even by an act of omission to eliminate suffering, violates divine law and offends the dignity of the human person. However, many Catholics—particularly in the United States—cite various quotations by Pope Benedict XVI as a source for continued disagreement and controversy regarding controversial issues. To compound confusion, physician-assisted dying is frequently and erroneously considered euthanasia:
- “Freedom to kill is not a true freedom but a tyranny that reduces the human being into slavery.”
- “Scripture, in fact, clearly excludes every form of the kind of self-determination of human existence that is presupposed in the theory and practice of euthanasia.”
- “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.”
- “While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
Christian Reformed (Church in North America)
In 1971 a Synod adopted a resolution which stated: “that synod, mindful of the Sixth Commandment, condemn the wanton or arbitrary destruction of any human being at any state of its development from the point of conception to the point of death.”
The Church’s experience with healing indicates hastened dying is not a genuine expression of faith and is a denial of God’s presence and power.
Disciples of Christ
The customary reasons for assisted dying, suffering and irreversible conditions, are nullified by the biblical witness to meaningful suffering and to possible healing.
Physician assisted dying is morally and theologically impermissible because of God’s sovereignty and the sanctity of human life. “Death is seen as evil in itself, and symbolic of all those forces which oppose God-given life and its fulfillment. Salvation and redemption are normally understood in Eastern Christianity in terms of sharing in Jesus Christ’s victory over death, sin and evil through His crucifixion and His resurrection. The Orthodox Church has a very strong pro-life stand which in part expresses itself in opposition to doctrinaire advocacy of euthanasia.”
Some Episcopalians believe it is morally wrong to take human life with medication to relieve suffering caused by incurable illness. Others approve of assisted dying in rare cases.
While the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) opposes physician-assisted dying, the NAE “believes that in cases where patients are terminally ill, death appears imminent and treatment offers no medical hope for a cure, it is morally appropriate to request the withdrawal of life-support systems, allowing natural death to occur. In such cases, every effort should be made to keep the patient free of pain and suffering, with emotional and spiritual support being provided until the patient dies.” Several denominations and fellowships hold membership in the NAE and adhere to its doctrine.
A 1992 statement on end-of-life matters from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Council supports physician-assisted death: “Health care professionals are not required to use all available medical treatment in all circumstances. Medical treatment may be limited in some instances, and death allowed to occur.” They oppose euthanasia because “deliberately destroying life created in the image of God is contrary to our Christian conscience.” However, they do acknowledge that physicians “struggle to choose the lesser evil” in some situations, e.g. when pain is so severe “that life is indistinguishable from torture.” Surprisingly, even though Death with Dignity is a hotly debated topic, they do not comment on it.
There are several Hindu points of view on physician-assisted dying. Most Hindus would say that a doctor should not accept a patient’s request for death since this will cause the soul and body to be separated at an unnatural time. The result will damage the karma of both doctor and patient. Other Hindus believe that physician-assisted dying cannot be allowed because it breaches the teaching of ahimsa (doing no harm). However, some Hindus say that by helping to end a painful life a person is performing a good deed and fulfilling their moral obligations.
Physician assisted dying violates the sanctity of life and Christian conscience.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations has been heavily involved in efforts, in both Congress and the courts, to restrict physician assisted death. In 2000, Rabbi J. David Bleich, Jewish Law Professor at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary and Law Professor at Yeshiva’s Cardozo Law School, stated that “Judaism places the highest importance on palliation of pain, particularly in the case of terminal patients,” and that “Judaism teaches that suicide is an offense against the Deity who is the Author of life.” Conservative and Reform leaders have called for increased discussion of end-of-life issues, but have not issued official positions on assisted dying.
Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod
“Advocates of euthanasia, as well as of assisted suicide, have sought to justify the taking of human life on moral grounds by describing it as a truly compassionate act aimed at the relief of human suffering. In light of what the Scriptures say about the kind of care God wills that we provide to those who suffer and are facing death, we reject such claims as neither compassionate nor caring. Christians aim always to care, never to kill.”
The Mennonite denomination is a decentralized faith group in which individual conferences make their own statements on social issues. The Conference of Mennonites in Canada issued a statement on the matter in 1995: they believe that pain, isolation and fear are the main factors that drive dying persons to consider suicide and that the state should not facilitate suicide, but rather control physical and emotional pain and support the dying within a caring community setting.
Methodists generally accept the individual’s freedom of conscience to determine the means and timing of death. Some regional conferences have endorsed the legalization of physician assisted dying.
Euthanasia is condemned. Anyone who takes part in euthanasia, including assisted suicide, is regarded as having violated the commandments of God. However the Church recognizes that when a person is in the final stages of terminal illness there may be difficult decisions to be taken. The Church states that, “When dying becomes inevitable, death should be looked upon as a blessing and a purposeful part of an eternal existence. Members should not feel obligated to extend mortal life by means that are unreasonable.”
Muslims are against physician-assisted dying. They believe that all human life is sacred because it is given by Allah, and that Allah chooses how long each person will live. Human beings should not interfere in this. Assisted dying is, therefore, forbidden. Physicians must not take active measures to terminate a patient’s life. The Qur’an states: “Take not life which Allah made sacred otherwise than in the course of justice”
An essay on the web page of the Islamic Center of Southern California states that “Since we did not create ourselves, we do not own our bodies…Attempting to kill oneself is a crime in Islam as well as a grave sin. The Qur’an says: ‘Do not kill (or destroy) yourselves, for verily Allah has been to you most Merciful.’ (Quran 4:29)…The concept of a life not worthy of living does not exist in Islam.”
A 1988 Presbyterian Church position paper on “heroic measures” states that, “Euthanasia, or ‘mercy-killing’ of a patient by a physician or by anyone else, including the patient himself (suicide) is murder. To withhold or to withdraw medical treatment, as is being discussed here, does not constitute euthanasia and should not be placed into the same category with it.” However, Presbyterians are devoting further study and discussion to the specific issue of physician-assisted dying.
The practice of painlessly putting to death people suffering from incurable diseases, contradicts Christian morals, believes official spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate Father Vsevolod Chaplin.
The Sikhs rejected suicide (and by extension, euthanasia) as an interference in God’s plan. Suffering, they said, was part of the operation of karma, and human beings should not only accept it without complaint but act so as to make the best of the situation that karma has given them. This is not absolute. Sikhism believes that life is a gift from God, but it also teaches that we have a duty to use life in a responsible way. Therefore Sikhs contemplating hastening their or another person’s death should look at the whole picture, and make appropriate distinctions between ending life and not artificially prolonging a terminal state.
Through their Life and Death with Dignity policy, National Spiritualist Association of Churches “affirms the right of each individual to determine for self, or through a guardian the extent through which the medical community or family may interfere with the treatment of a terminal, or irreversible condition, by the use of Living Wills, Advanced Directive and Durable Power of Attorneys, available in all states in various form. We as Spiritualists are bound to follow the law. If we, as individuals, would have the current laws changed or extended beyond their present scope, it is our individual right to work for this through the proper channels.”
Synod of the Great Lakes – Reformed Church in America
“When we consider how Christian convictions influence a choice for assisted suicide, the primary concern is not to protect or deny peoples’ rights, but to explain why Christians, given their convictions, are apt to see something as right or wrong. On the whole, Christians value the individual liberty that allows them to act on the basis of their distinctive moral commitments. However, a shared Christian commitment does not seem to be consistent with a choice to take one’s own life, even under conditions of extreme suffering.”
Unitarians support Death with Dignity. In its 1988 General Resolution, the United Universalist Association resolved to advocate for “the right to self-determination in dying” and to “support legislation that will create legal protection for the right to die with dignity, in accordance with one’s own choice.”
The UCC generally affirms individual freedom and responsibility, including the right to choose in regards to reproductive rights, and has a history of encouraging inclusive discussion about all aspects of death and dying.
At its 9th General Synod in 1973, the UCC adopted The Rights and Responsibilities of Christians Regarding Human Death, which, inter alia, “affirms the right to die and execution of living wills; supports the right to die with dignity through termination of extraordinary measures to keep a terminally ill, unconscious patient alive…” However, the Synod “did not address the question of euthanasia at a conscious patient’s request.”
At its 26th General Synod, in 2008, the resolution “Legalization of Physician Aid in Dying” was adopted that “called on the church to study a proposal favoring legalization” of “physician aid in dying.” The working group established to that end failed to find consensus on the matter. At the 27th General Synod, UCC’s Executive Council sent a draft resolution “In Support of Physician Assistance in Dying” back to the working group for further study.
Many UCC clergy have been supportive of right-to-die legislation, and the UCC continues to encourage open, inclusive conversations about all aspects of death and dying.
Various Mainline and Liberal Christian
Pro-choice statements have been made by the United Church of Christ, and the Methodist Church on the US West Coast. The Episcopalian (Anglican) Unitarian, Methodist, Presbyterian and Quaker movements are amongst the most liberal, allowing at least individual decision-making in cases of hastened death.
For additional information specific to biblical references to suicide, visit Religious Tolerance.