13694448_spragmatic: concerned with what is practical, expedient and convenient, rather than with theories and ideals. (Chambers Compact Dictionary)

I was rushing through breakfast, reading the papers, when the following article caught my eye.

“Law don and DPP argue for assisted suicides”
A law professor and a deputy public prosecutor here (Singapore) have suggested that it be made legal for a terminally ill person to kill himself with his doctor’s consent. They see it as an issue worth considering as the population here gets older and more susceptible to long-term debilitating illnesses. The proposal came in an article in the latest issue of the Singapore Academy of Law journal, penned by the National University of Singapore law don Stanley Yeo and DPP Toh Puay San, who wrote in her personal capacity.

The pair even crafted a piece of draft legislation on such suicides, and argued that the benefits offered by physician-assisted suicides outweighed the harm . . . Unlike euthanasia, in which the doctor administers the drugs, the act is entirely in the patient’s hands. In both cases, consent by both doctor and patient is essential. (K.C. Vijayan, The Straits Times, March 20 2010, Page A20.)

I was disturbed by the article for at least three reasons: what is being suggested, by whom it is being suggested, and the reason behind the suggestion.

The suggestion is made by a law don and and a deputy public prosecutor. They represent key legal entities even if the DPP was writing in her personal capacity. This is a serious proposal. The church in Singapore cannot remain silent nor should she respond emotionally. The proposal deserves careful study and response by our top lawyers, doctors, and ethicists, pastors and theologians.

What is being recommended is suicide. The proposal would allow doctors to assist patients to kill themselves if both doctor and patient are in agreement. I am sure stringent guidelines would be set in place to guide such decisions. Still, it is giving individuals the right to end their own lives. Followers of Christ will be opposed to any such suggestion. We take seriously the 6th commandment and are pro life in every sense of the word. Commenting on the 6th commandment, Dr Bruce K. Waltke writes:

Where humanity has overthrown God, humans are left without dignity and significance. After all without God, we are only animals, perhaps top dogs on the evolutionary ladder, but animals nevertheless. The law of the jungle applies: survival of the fittest. The unfit, the weak, the helpless, the dying are therefore expendable in the survival of the species . . .

Today society rages over issues that go straight to the heart of the sixth commandment: abortion, euthanasia, the use of human embryos for stem-cell research, and doctor-assisted suicide. Christians oppose these modern “solutions” because we firmly hold that each individual is made in the image of God, with the dignity and significance that entails. (An Old Testament Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007, 428.)

The Christian position is clear. However, life in a fallen world is not. For example there are occasions when doctors treat terminally ill patients in severe pain. The pain can be controlled with morphine. But increasing the dosage of morphine also hastens the patient’s death. With the patient’s consent, most doctors will administer the higher dosages of morphine. What is clear here is that the doctor’s reason for giving the morphine is not too kill the patient. It is for the relief of the patient’s pain. Nevertheless it does hasten death.

This column is not the place to discuss complex medial-ethical issues in detail. I cite the above scenario as a reminder that dealing with concrete issues in a broken world is never easy. I know this first hand as I saw my first wife die of cancer. I fear that we will do our theologising in the comfort of our studies, far away from the cries of those in horrendous pain. Our decisions must still be made on the basis of Scripture but with the utmost respect for the complexity of life in a fallen world and the horror of intense human pain. And we must take responsibility for our decisions. Christians take all sorts of pro life stands. We are against abortion, euthanasia and suicide. My question is, to what degree do we roll up our sleeves and invest our resources to actually help unwanted children, single mothers, patients dying in pain etc. ? Talk is cheap. Caring for people is not.

Hence my concern for the rationale behind the suggestion. Vijayan writes: “They (Prof Yeo and DPP Toh) see it as an issue worth considering as the population here gets older and more susceptible to long-term debilitating illnesses.” I may be reading too much into this statement but I get the feeling that cost is also a concern here. Taking care of a growing greying population is going to get very costly. We cannot be naive. We do not have the funds to do all that we want to. Every government has to make hard choices as to how to spend the public’s money. But how do we put a price tag on human life? And if we start doing that where will it end?

And when is a life not worth living? Prof Yeo and DPP Toh note that:

Current palliative care “might minimise physical pain, but it cannot remove the strong sense of helplessness and mental or emotional anguish that some patients experience as a result of progressive deterioration of their bodies”, they said. (Vijayan. A20)

I have no doubts that there are those who, for various reasons, suffer a “strong sense of helplessness and mental or emotional anguish . . . as a result of progressive deterioration of their bodies . . .” Such folks need help. A caring society should ask if we are doing all we can to meet those desperate mental and emotional needs. It seems terribly callous and lazy to respond to such needs by making it easier for people in emotional pain to kill themselves.

I have the highest respect for the many in our hospitals and our hospices and our homes who care for the terminally ill on a daily basis, quiet heroes who may not get quoted in major journals but who show us what it means to be truly human. Maybe they are the ones who are showing us the way forward.