Assisted Dying bill. Can the Bible support it?
Lord Faulkner of Thoroton is a Labour life peer in the UK’s House of Lords. In June 2014 Lord Faulkner set before the House of Lords his ‘Assisted Dying Bill’. This bill follows many similar Bills tabled before both Houses of the UK Parliament, most notably Lord Joffe’s ‘Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill’ tabled in 2004. All previous attempts to introduce any change in the law to allow for either Assisted Suicide or Euthanasia have been unsuccessful. Lord Faulkner’s new bill does not allow for Euthanasia, someone wishing to end their life without having a life threatening illness, it only allows for those who are terminally ill to be assisted in ending their own life. The Bill defines those who are terminally ill as those who:
‘(a) Have been diagnosed by a registered medical practitioner as having an inevitably progressive condition which cannot be reversed by treatment (“a terminal illness”); and
(b) As a consequence of that terminal illness, is reasonably expected to die within six months.’
This illness must also be, under Section 3, B, i & ii, signed by two medical practitioners, one of whom must not be a relative of the patient or a colleague in the same practice or clinical team as the other practitioner. The person wishing to end their own life with assistance must also be able to consent to the action being taken and must have the capacity to make the decision themselves. There must also be a period of 14 days between the original declaration to a medical professional that a patient wants to end their life and the medication to do so being administered. These precautions are put in place to stop either non-terminally ill people, people who may have a debilitating but non-life threatening illness or those who may just no longer wish to live, from being able to take their own lives with assistance. They are also in place to stop any patient from ending their life due to pressure put on them by any family member or healthcare professional.
The Assisted Dying Bill does not make provision for any medical professional to administer the medication, which will lead to the patient’s death, to the patient. The medical staff may only prepare the medication, give advice to the patient on how to take the medication or help the patient to inject or otherwise self-administer the medication. One must draw attention to Section 5 of the Bill, ‘Conscientious Objection’. No medical professional will be obliged to carry out the wishes of a patient who wants to end this their life under this act if that medical professional has a ‘conscientious objection’ to it, similar rules exist within abortion legislation in the UK.
It is my opinion, as someone involved in local and national political structures, that whether this version of the Assisted Suicide Bill or one with amendments from the committee stages of our parliamentary processes, that within the next parliament, there will be some legislation on assisted suicide passed and receiving Royal Assent. This leads us then to see whether or not there could be any Biblical case to support such a move.
It has long been the case that Christians have not been in favour of suicide, assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia. This thought comes from an understanding of the sanctity of life, whereby it is God who creates life and only God has the right to take life away. Genesis 2:7 reads ‘then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’ (Italics added) It is this basic understanding that it is the breath of God, the very essence of God himself in humankind, that separates us from the animals and makes us capable of a relationship with God, since, as we read in the previous chapter, we ‘are made in His image’ (Gen 1:26). The sanctity of life is an argument used when discussing many issues around life and death, such as Euthanasia and Abortion. Proponents of this view will use scriptures such as Psalm 139: 13 ‘For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb’, to argue that God created our lives and therefore they are sacred so we must do all we can to protect them. Professor John Wyatt of UCL, on the sanctity of life, writes:
‘…in Christian thought, the dignity of a human being resides not in what you can do, but in what you are, by creation. Human beings do not need to earn the right to be treated as Godlike beings. Our dignity is intrinsic, in the way we have been made’
This sums up one the main criteria as to why many Christians are against Abortion, Euthanasia and suicide, because human life has intrinsic worth, and nobody is able to determine otherwise, not even the person who the life belongs to. It is as if, somehow, life is on loan from God and is not really our in the first place, we are only custodians of it, rather than owners of it.
There are however times in the Bible when assisted suicide happens. Suicide as a concept is mentioned 7 times in the Bible. Abimelech in Judges 9, Samson in Judges 16, King Saul in 1 Samuel 31, Saul’s armour-bearer in 1 Samuel 31, Ahithophel in 2 Samuel 17, Zimri in 1 Kings 16 and Judas Iscariot in Matthew 27. 5 of these were conventional suicides (Judas, Zimri, Saul’s Armour Bearer and Ahithophel) and 2 were assisted suicides, Saul and Abimelech. It is the final two I will focus on. Abimelech was a son of the Judge, Gideon. Abimelech was hungry for power and wanted to become the King of his mother’s people in Shechem. He went to great lengths to gain power and even murdered his brothers so no one would challenge his position:
‘He went to his father’s house at Ophrah, and killed his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone; but Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, survived, for he his himself’ Judges 9:5
After this event they made Abimelech king and he ruled over Israel for 3 years (Judges 9:22). The people began to revolt against Abimelech and tried to rid him as their King. Abimelech took his army and camped outside Shechem and he ambushed his people and killed them. After this Abimelech travelled to Thebez to try and take the city, he came to the tower of city and tried to burn it to the ground, however a women was in the tower and threw a rock out of the tower which struck Abimelech and crushed his skull. Abimelech would have died painfully of his injuries, however before he does he asks his armour-bearer to ‘”Draw your sword and Kill me, so people will not say about me, ‘A women killed him’“ So the young man thrust him through, and he died’ Judges 9:54. No comment is given as to whether this was a sinful act or not, simply that it happened. The writer does note that ‘God repaid Abimelech for the crime he committed against his father in killing his seventy brothers’ Judges 9:56. Here we find a King, albeit not a popular one, who has considerable injuries who will not survive for much longer, however his existence from that point on, until death, will be extremely painful. We do not get the impression that Abimelech wanted to be killed because of his injuries, but more because of pride. This does however show us a time of someone asking someone else to help him or her die. What this story doesn’t do is make a clear statement on whether the death of Abimelech or the actions of the armour-bearer was sinful or not.
The second time we encounter an assisted suicide in the Bible is in the story of King Saul in 1 Samuel 31. Saul is fighting a battle against the Philistines; the Philistines killed all of Saul’s sons and Saul had been badly injured by the battle. Again, similarly with Abimelech, we have a king who has been injured, most probably wont survive his injuries, and is in a lot of pain. Saul asks his armour bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through with it, and make sport of me” 1 Samuel 31:4. Here in 1 Samuel 31 the armour-bearer refuses so Saul ‘falls on his sword’ (1 Sam 31:4), however in the next chapter, and book, when the death of Saul and Jonathan is being reported to David we read:
“David said to him, “How did things go? Tell me!” He answered, “The army fled from the battle, but also many of the army fell and died; and Saul and his son Jonathan also died.”5Then David asked the young man who was reporting to him, “How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan died?” 6The young man reporting to him said, “I happened to be on Mount Gilboa; and there was Saul leaning on his spear, while the chariots and the horsemen drew close to him. 7When he looked behind him, he saw me, and called to me. I answered, ‘Here sir.’ 8And he said to me, ‘Who are you?’ I answered him, ‘I am an Amalekite.’ 9He said to me, ‘Come, stand over me and kill me; for convulsions have seized me, and yet my life still lingers.’ 10So I stood over him, and killed him…’ 2 Samuel 1:4-10
We see from this account of the death of Saul that after asking to be killed, Saul indeed was assisted in being killed. Whichever account we take to be accurate, in both accounts Saul was pleading to be killed by someone else. Again, in the account, as with the Abimelech, there is no judgment given either to the person wanting to be killed or the person doing the killing. What one cannot escape however is that both of these deaths happened in battle. It seems that for those who would want to argue for the sanctity of life, the must also argue that war is wrong, as both end with people being killed. If one cannot kill oneself, as we are made in the image of God, or assist another person to kill oneself, then one cannot agree with war, as the person we are killing is also made in the image of God.
The Early Church father Augustine, wrote about many areas of Christian doctrine and in his book, City of God, he writes about suicide:
‘It is not without significance, that in no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says, “You shall not kill.” ‘
It is however Augustine who is credited with creating a theory of Just War, whereby one, as long as in proper authority, can declare war on another for reasons of creating peace where there isn’t peace already. This seems at the very least confusing, one is able to take another’s life in the act of war, but one is not able to take ones own life, even if one is in incredible pain and has no quality of life.
Both accounts of assisted suicide are found in the Old Testament. One cannot look for a Biblical basis without looking at the teachings of Christ. Christ however doesn’t mention suicide. He does, however, speak in length about life. Jesus says in John 14:6 says that He is life. In John 10:10 Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus, when asked what the greatest commandment of the Law is replies that one should love God, but that also that “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt 22:39) How then does one love one’s neighbour when one’s neighbour is in great pain and suffering, whilst at the same time, offering the hope of life in all of its abundance? For Christ, life wasn’t just about what happens when you die. Many evangelical Christians who I know are only focused on what happens to people when they die. The goal is to get people to ‘say a prayer’ by which means they will be saved for eternity. This, however, doesn’t correlate to what I see Jesus doing during his ministry. In Matthew 14 when Jesus is speaking to a multitude, he is not just interested in their spiritual lives, but also their physical well-being, so with 5 loaves and 2 fishes he feeds them. When speaking to his disciples in Matthew 25 about the Last Judgement he says:
‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Matthew 25: 34-36
We see Jesus again talking about people’s physical well-being and by looking after one’s neighbours physical well-being, one is also looking after Christ himself. For Christ life in abundance was a life of contentment and joy in this life as well as the next. So what then, if someone in this life, is not capable of living life in abundance because of great illness and diminished well-being? One could argue that because we all have free will, that person is able to do with their life what they wish and that through love of ones neighbour, because it is their wish and will, one could assist that person so they will leave this life and enter another one of endless joy and abundance, within the Christian understanding of life after death. However one could also argue that life was never promised to be easy, but that we would face sickness and death as part of this life. Therefore with the hope of life eternal one must live with that hope and bear all that life brings. One however could argue that with the advances of medical science particularly in the western world, we prolong life, which is, I would add, inherently good. However at the time of the Biblical writers one would have simply died from illnesses we now see as minor or manageable now, such as a broken limb, contaminated water, malaria, epilepsy, heart attack to name but a few. The Bible never deals with complicated modern medical conundrums, it can’t. So one must look at the principles of what scripture teaches. Those principles, in this situation, for me, would be. 1. Life is good because God creates it. 2. Every person has free will to choose what to do in this life. 3. Jesus wants to give us life in abundance and cares not only about our spiritual life after death but about our physical ones here also. It is within the principles that one must look at situations regarding modern medical science and indeed the rights of each human being to live a life of abundance in a way that is honouring to Christ.
To conclude then, can one Biblically support the concept of assisted dying, yes, and in the same breath no. I believe the Bible is wholly unclear on this issue either way, as it depends on how one interprets particular scriptures and what texts are prioritized over others. On from that, can a Christian support Lord Faulkner’s Bill with confidence that they are being faithful to scripture, I believe one can because this bill is about a person’s free will and compassion for someone who will have no or very little physical well-being.
The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001
Wyatt. John, Matters of Life and Death, Nottingham, IVP, 2009
Sloyan. Gerard, Interpretation; A Bible commentary for Teaching and Preaching: John, Loiusville, John Knox Press, 2009.
Green. Michael, BST; The Message of Matthew, Nottingham, IVP, 2000
Lord Faulkner, Assisted Dying Bill 2014-15. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2014-2015/0006/lbill_2014-20150006_en_2.htm#l1g1 as viewed on 23/03/13
Assisted Dying, Dignity in dying, http://www.dignityindying.org.uk/assisted-dying/lord-falconers-assisted-dying-bill/ as viewed on 22/03/15
Lord Faulkner, http://www.parliament.uk/biographies/lords/lord-falconer-of-thoroton/2758 as viewed on 18/03/15
Augustine, City of God, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120101.htm, as viewed on 23/03/15
Christians for Euthanasia, http://christiansforve.org.au/ as viewed on 22/03/15
 Lord Faulker of Thoroton, http://www.parliament.uk/biographies/lords/lord-falconer-of-thoroton/2758, as viewed on 18/03/15
 Lord Faulkner, Assisted Dying Bill 2014-15, Section 2. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2014-2015/0006/lbill_2014-20150006_en_2.htm#l1g1 as viewed on 23/03/15
 Ibid, Section 3, 1, B, i & ii.
 Ibid, Section 3, 3, B & C.
 Ibid, Section 4, 2, D.
 Lord Faulkner, Assisted Dying Bill 2014-15, Section 4, 4, A-C. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2014-2015/0006/lbill_2014-20150006_en_2.htm#l1g1 as viewed on 23/03/13
 Wyatt J, Matters of Life and Death, IVP, 2009, .55
 Augustine, City of God, book 1, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120101.htm, as viewed on 23/03/15