Nowadays euthanasia has the special sense of taking deliberate steps to end human life, usually with the intention of avoiding extreme pain, distress or helplessness.
- So what is the Methodist Church's view?
The Methodist Church believes that a Biblical and ethical approach to the death event makes euthanasia, as understood by its supporters, both inappropriate and irrelevant.
- Why do some people call for euthanasia?
Modern medicine is enabling people to live longer and has increased the range of drugs available for treatment and pain relief. However it has also increased public awareness of the anguish that a long, painful or incapacitating terminal illness may cause to the patient and their families. Some argue that individuals have the right to choose the time and circumstances of their death, and also that it may be compassionate to end a patient's life even if they are not in a position to request or give consent to medically-induced death.
- How exactly does the Methodist Church understand euthanasia?
The 1974 Statement clearly identifies two categories where medical treatment may hasten death, but should not be identified with euthanasia:
- Where doctors decide to use drugs for pain-relief for a patient with a terminal illness, which may have the side effect of shortening life
- Where a doctor advises against medical intervention which may lengthen the patient's lifespan, but the patient will not be able to enjoy or even respond to their environment – such as a child born with a particularly severe abnormality or a victim of an accident causing irreversible brain damage. The decision not to intervene is compassionate and responsible. It is not euthanasia.
Advocates of euthanasia tend to go much further than this in pressing for laws to permit the deliberate ending of life when the patient has requested this and a medical crisis justifies it.
- What are the arguments against legalising euthanasia?
The opposition to voluntary euthanasia is partly based on the practical difficulties that would be faced by doctors and other medical staff. Who would make the decisions? What would the impact be on staff working in the hospital of knowing that euthanasia was administered there? These practical problems, and their implications for relationships between professional staff, patients and close relatives are obvious. For these and other connected reasons, the medical professional bodies are largely opposed to legalising of euthanasia, although there is not a consensus among individual medical professionals.
There is also the difficulty of framing legislation in such a way as to exclude its misuse, allowing relatives to short circuit the natural life span of a difficult individual, or putting pressure on someone who feels guilty about the burden they are putting on their family.
- But isn't it compassionate in some extreme cases?
The prospect of incurable illness and end of life suffering may cause anxiety, not only to the patient and their family, but also to medical professionals who may have to make difficult decisions without the full consent or awareness of the patient and at a traumatic time.
If it were impossible in any other way to deal with the problems of suffering and distress, the legalisation of euthanasia might have to be considered. There is, however, a new sense of urgency in developing better methods of caring for the dying, which includes a greater emphasis on palliative care coupled with an understanding of the needs of the whole person.
- Giving the gift of life?
There are also concerns about both the cost and the ultimate value of maintaining a patient's life on a life support machine, as well as questions about the diagnosis of death. The Methodist Church, in partnership with the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the United Reformed Church, produced a guide to organ donation and the pending legal changes in Wales, called Sharing the Gift of Life which discusses many of these issues.
- What guidance can we get from Bible?
The Christian conviction is that 'the life of men and women bears the stamp of God who "made man in his own image" (Genesis 1:27). This is the source of our basic dignity and it is the biblical basis for the sanctity of human life.' What God has given, we should not take away. Death is an event marking a transition rather than a terminus.
We are called to use all God's gifts responsibly and to find in every situation the way of compassion. This compassion can be shown in energetically developing better methods of care for the dying. The hospice movement has made an invaluable contribution here.
'Shadows - A Study Pack on Euthanasia', 1994 (Methodist Church / Baptist Union).
For further information the first point of contact is your local church where the minister can discuss your questions with you.