Home News The Compassionate Aid in Dying bill is no neighbor to life

The Compassionate Aid in Dying bill is no neighbor to life

By Gregory Parker Jr.

In March 2023, Pennsylvania lawmakers introduced the Compassionate Aid in Dying bill (HB543/SB816). The bill is modeled after Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which has largely set the framework, in America, for the nine other states and jurisdictions (D.C.) that have legalized physician-assisted suicide. The bill is for those desiring to “end their life on their own terms” on account of “unbearable and unrelieved suffering in their final days.” The bill hinges on the significance of “individual autonomy and self-determination.” In other words, if we as humans are those with ultimate self-rule then we may insist that we end our life at a time and in a way we see fit. However, if such is the case (if autonomy is as important as the bill claims), then it is unclear why other autonomous requests for physician assisted-suicide should not also be honored. Placing the burden of the bill on “autonomy” creates a horizon through which the bill may expand its patient list in spite of its stated reservations against doing so. Similarly, with the entirely subjective and unmeasurable category of “unbearable suffering” — there is a reason your physician has you rank your own pain on a scale of 1-10 — as a determinative qualifier for a life “no longer worth living,” there will be significant cross-pressure on the bill to be inclusive to all genres of suffering.

For a long time, Americans have held that suicide — in any form — is wrong because it contradicts our very humanity, an act that displays an unwillingness to receive the dignifying and beautiful gift of life from God. As such, the lives of humans are characterized by dependence on God, not a declaration of one’s autonomy or “rights” before God. This, of course, in our own time feels strangely religious and, therefore, seemingly a decision to be practiced in private but not upheld by public law. However, such a bill makes claims on the “right” to life. As Scottish theologian James Eglinton has asked over similar legislation abroad, “What about those who want to live?” Physician-assisted suicide legislation inverts the paradigm, such that those who meet the qualifying categories (religious or not) will now need to existentially justify their willingness to live. The right to life is not a private one. 

If passed, the Compassionate Aid in Dying bill will be under significant cross-pressure in the years ahead to expand the candidates for inclusion and indeed dehumanize us. Hence, why Denmark’s council of Ethics this past October rejected legalization of euthanasia or physician assisted-suicide. The English language press release is particularly revelatory stating, “There is too much at stake regarding our basic view of humanity.” Moreover, the legislation cannot possibly protect the vulnerable and will unalterably impact our “perception of old age, the advent of death, quality of life and what it means to be considerate of others.” The humane response to anyone struggling with the ideation of suicide is prevention and compassionate care. 

Finally, the framing of the bill as “compassionate” is unfortunate and displays a distressing expansion of the semantic range of the word. In the New Testament the word “compassion” or “compassionate” appears in a number of prominent places. For example, we are told in the parable of the Prodigal Son that as the wayward son returns home, his Father “saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:21). Of course, many different words are translated into English as compassion/compassionate from the Greek: splangchneuo, oiktrio, sympatheo. The last of these, sympatheo, describes Jesus Christ in Hebrews 4:13: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel (sympathēsai) our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are — yet without sin.” Jesus’ life-giving and restorative actions are often described as compassionate (Matt. 9:36, Matt. 14:14, Matt. 20:34; Mar. 1:41; Luke 7:13). In Luke 10, Jesus teaches what true love of neighbor looks like through the parable of the Good Samaritan, a passage that has long-shaped the medical field to be oriented toward life and curative practices. In Luke 10, two figures pass by the half-dead, bruised and battered traveler, facilitating his impending death, but the Good Samaritan sees the half-dead man and has “compassion on him.” Notably, the Good Samaritan does everything to preserve the life of the dying individual, at significant cost to himself. The passage presses us toward viewing the act of physician-assisted suicide as at its heart, heartless.

Of course, there is a genuine place in Christian thinking for death and the desire to depart and be with Christ (2 Cor. 5:1–10; Phil. 1:23), but this springs forth not from an aversion to life itself but a pining to be with Christ. Christ, of course, does not eliminate the sufferer but takes on our suffering and, as such, places suffering within a much grander but no less mysterious narrative. We love our neighbor, then, not through enabling their quick demise but rather through true compassion that is oriented toward life. Our legislation ought to be oriented toward enhancing and expanding palliative care practices and not ending lives. ••

Gregory Parker Jr. is an assistant professor of theology at Cairn University in Langhorne and a committee member of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics.

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