Coming from someone for whom I have a most profound sense of admiration, the words: “I am in favour of assisted dying” sent unspeakable shivers down my spine.
Those words were spoken by Bishop Desmond Tutu, archbishop emeritus of Cape Town and a Nobel Peace Laureate. He remains chair of the Elders, an international group of former political leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela to work for peace, justice and human rights.
It is important to note here that the most esteemed Bishop has most obviously fallen prey to an emotive hard case – the case of Nelson Mandela’s slow and evidently painful death after his years of endearing flamboyance and renowned unmatched distinction. Tutu is reported to have said: “The manner of Nelson Mandela’s prolonged death was an affront”. He concomitantly concluded: “I have spent my life working for dignity for the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to the issue of dignity for the dying”. If Tutu is not referring to hospice and palliative care for the helplessly aged and for the terminally ill, what he said disturbs me to the core.
As a youthful cleric in the 1990s, assisted suicide and euthanasia came to be among the top social concerns which I passionately addressed after the breaking news relative to Michigan’s Dr Jack Kevorkian who participated in more than three dozen assisted suicides. The issue then was most disturbing to me as a servant of the God – the God who is the Giver of life and the One who ultimately causes it to cease in relation to this mortal existence. Today, as in yesteryears, implications loom large for every family with aging or ailing members.
By the way, for the record, there are two instances of euthanasia in the Bible.
In the first, according to Judges 9:52-55, Abimelech, believing himself to be fatally wounded (with a fractured skull after being hit on the head by a millstone), asks his armour-bearer to kill him to spare him the ‘indignity’ of being killed by a woman. In the second, according to 2 Samuel 1:6-9, an Amalekite dispatches the mortally injured Saul, still alive after a failed attempt at suicide.
These two cases demonstrate the two main arguments for euthanasia, autonomy (‘death with dignity’) and compassion (‘release from suffering’). We note, however, that there is nothing in the Bible indicating that God acquiesced in any way to the actions taken – neither for dignity nor for mercy.
As for me and my house (family and church), the perspective on the subject of ‘assisted suicide’ is simple. We believe in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception until natural death. I have shared with my congregations over 60 passages of scripture in the Bible that relate to the sanctity of life, beginning with ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’ Ultimately, we believe that God is the Giver and Taker of life and that His will in such matters takes precedence over man’s will.
Finally, the Church’s experience with healing must lead us to uphold that assisted dying (actually assisted suicide) is not a genuine expression of faith and is a denial of God’s presence and power.