As Christians and Jews, we have learned to think of human life”our own and that of others”as both gift and trust. We have been entrusted to one another and are to care for one another. We have not been authorized to make comparative judgments about the worth of lives or to cut short the years that God gives to us or others. We are to relieve suffering when we can, and to bear with those who suffer, helping them to bear their suffering, when we cannot. We are never to “solve” the problem of suffering by eliminating those who suffer. Euthanasia, once established as an option, will inevitably tempt us to abandon those who suffer. This is especially the case when we permit ourselves to be persuaded that their lives are a burden to us or to them. The biblical tradition compels us to seek and exercise better ways to care. We may think that we care when we kill, but killing is never caring. Whatever good intentions we might invoke to excuse it, killing is the rejection of God’s command to care and of his help in caring.
We may possess many good things in life. Although we benefit from such goods, they do not constitute our very being. We can, if we wish, renounce such goods or give them into the control of another. Life, however, is not simply a “good” that we possess. We are living beings. Our life is our person. To treat our life as a “thing” that we can authorize another to terminate is profoundly dehumanizing. Euthanasia, even when requested by the competent, can never be a humanitarian act, for it attacks the distinctiveness and limitations of being human. Persons”ourselves and others”are not things to be discarded when they are no longer deemed useful. We can give our life for another, but we cannot give ultimate authority over our life to another. The painfully learned moral wisdom of our heritage is that persons cannot “own” persons. The decision for euthanasia is not an exercise of human freedom but the abandonment of human freedom. To attempt to turn one’s life into an object that is at the final disposition of another is to become less than human, while it places the other in a position of being more than human”a lord of life and death, a possessor of the personhood of others. Human community and the entirety of civilization is premised upon a relationship of moral claims and duties between persons. Personhood has no meaning apart from life. If life is a thing that can be renounced or taken at will, the moral structure of human community, understood as a community of persons, is shattered. Whatever the intentions of their proponents, proposals for legalizing euthanasia must be seen not as a solution to discrete problems but as an assault upon the fundamental ideas undergirding the possibility of moral order. The alternative to that moral order is the lethal disorder of a brave new world in which killing is defined as caring, life is viewed as the enemy, and death is counted as a benefit to be bestowed.
“We hold these truths,” the founders of our political community declared, and among the truths that our community has held is that the right to life is “unalienable.” All human beings have an equal right to life bestowed by “Nature and Nature’s God.” Government is to recognize and respect that right; it does not bestow that right. This unalienable right places a clear limit on the power of the state. Except when government exercises its duty to protect citizens against force and injustice, or when it punishes evildoers, it may not presume for itself an authority over human life. To claim that”apart from these exceptions”the state may authorize the killing even of consenting persons is to give state authority an ultimacy it has never had in our political tradition. Again, legalized euthanasia is an unprecedented extension of the license to kill. In the name of individual rights it undercuts the foundation of individual rights. An unalienable right cannot be alienated, it cannot be given away. Our political tradition has wisely recognized that government cannot authorize the alienation of a right it did not first bestow.
Legalized euthanasia would inevitably require the complicity of physicians. Members of the healing profession are asked to blur or erase the distinction between healing and killing. In our tradition, medical caregivers have understood this to be their calling: to cure when possible, to care always, never to kill. Legalized euthanasia would require a sweeping transformation of the meaning of medicine. In a time when the medical profession is subjected to increasing criticism, when many people feel vulnerable before medical technology and practice, it would be foolhardy for our society to authorize physicians to kill. Euthanasia is not the way to respond to legitimate fears about medical technology and practice. It is unconscionable that the proponents of euthanasia exploit such fears. Such fears can be met and overcome by strongly reaffirming the distinction between killing and allowing to die”by making clear that useless and excessively burdensome treatment can be refused, while at the same time leaving no doubt that this society will neither authorize physicians to kill nor look the other way if they do.
This fourfold wisdom can be rejected only at our moral peril. By attending to these sources of wisdom, we can find our way back to a firmer understanding of the limits of human responsibility, and of the imperative to embrace compassionately those who suffer from illness and the fears associated with the end of life. Guided by this wisdom, we will not presume to eliminate a fellow human being, nor need we fear being abandoned in our suffering. The compact of rights, duties, and mutual trust that makes human community possible depends upon our continuing adherence to the precept, Always to care, never to kill .
Hadley Arkes , Amherst College
Matthew Berke, First Things
Midge Decter, Institute on Religion and Public Life
Rabbi Marc Gellman, Hebrew Union College
Robert George, Princeton University
Pastor Paul Hinlicky, Lutheran Forum
Russell Hittinger, Catholic University of America
The Rev. Robert Jenson, St. Olaf College
Gilbert Meilaender, Oberlin College
Father Richard John Neuhaus, Institute on Religion and Public Life
Rabbi David Novak , University of Virginia
James Nuechterlein, First Things
Max Stackhouse, Andover Newton Theological School