We Christian ethicists often sound more like overprotective parents than scholars seeking to promote social justice and welfare. It looks like we are against everything. Our approach to social policy often resembles my 8-year-old son, who recently came into my room to ask a favor – but never asked.
He just stood in the doorway scratching his head. Then he said, “Never mind. The answer is no anyway.”
Like parenting, the overemphasis of prohibitions makes it look like we are only against stuff, never for anything. Nowhere can we see this better than in our sanctity-of-life ethic.
We are quick to oppose abortion, but slow to provide compassionate solutions to the growing problem. We stand on our moral soapboxes preaching with fiery words, failing to notice the pain in the eyes of those who walk past. One of our biggest problems with social issues is that we are quick to oppose, but we fail to provide a constructive solution to the problem.
One issue where Christian ethicists have had a mixed performance is physician-assisted suicide. I recently responded to the new Washington State Department of Health’s 2009 Death with Dignity report, which among other things listed the reason 63 terminally ill patients requested and received lethal prescriptions to aid them in their desire to die.
The primary reasons listed were loss of personal autonomy (100 percent), inability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable (91 percent) and a loss of dignity (82 percent).
The minority concerns, on the other hand, were pain control (25 percent), burden upon others (23 percent) and financial yoke (2 percent).
These numbers tell us several things. First, the medical establishment and the hospice movement have made great strides in treating the symptoms associated with dying. Years ago the primary concern would have been pain and symptom management. Today there is no reason someone should have to die in excruciating pain.
Unfortunately, the report’s numbers tell us that we are still missing the mark because we need to do more than simply treat disease. The numbers show us that terminally ill patients are worried about the loss of personhood.
Almost all of these patients fear the loss of themselves and often feel that they are no longer in control of their lives. These patients regretfully have to give up activities, careers or projects that have defined their lives. This feeling of lost identity leaves many wondering who they are. Still others are overcome by a feeling of grief for their former selves.
These tormented souls suffer the loss of what makes them human. They feel that they have lost their identity, purpose and a sense of hope. Instead of a lethal dose of painkillers or sedatives, these individuals need their humanity restored. They need to feel whole again. They need a resurrection of their identity or a rebirth, which transcends their disease. Most of all, they need a mystical sense of hope.
In health care, Christians have rightly focused upon the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), which calls us to care for the wounds and disease of those who have been forgotten by society. This parable has called us to pay attention to physical suffering. Unfortunately, we have done this to the exclusion of other healing passages in the gospel of Luke.
We have missed other passages, which call us to heal hearts and help restore people to wholeness. Two of the most powerful passages in Luke are the healing of the paralyzed man (Luke 5:20-24) and the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43-47). In both stories, the healing is more than physical. It is a restoration of their being and sense of self. These people were more than forgiven; they were made whole. Christ was able to refresh their sense of identity, purpose and hope. It is a restoration of their being and sense of self.
As I read the Washington State report, I see cries for help. I see a call for the Christian community to arise and meet this need with more grief counseling, support for palliative care, and yes, pastoral care.
It’s a call to go beyond providing religious services and to give of our own vulnerabilities, so that others can regain a sense of wholeness. It is time that we let go of our negative rhetoric and focus on solving the problems that give rise to discussion of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.
We need to go beyond our opposition, rise up and join those that are looking for a compassionate solution to these issues.
Monty M. Self is the oncology chaplain for the Baptist Health Medical Center Little Rock and an adjunct instructor of ethics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.