Radical Individual Autonomy and Physician Assisted Suicide

It’s been a slow and steady progression, but little by little contemporary culture continues to chip away at the biblical notion of human dignity, and ironically enough, the method used to chip away at human dignity is radical individual autonomy. In 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision gave the woman radical individual autonomy over the baby in her womb. No one could compel her to carry the baby to full term. It was her choice and her choice alone. In 2015, the Obergefell v. Hodges decision gave individuals radical autonomy over whom they could marry. And today the LGBT movement promises radical individual autonomy even over one’s gender (or “perceived gender”). One’s gender identity has become sacrosanct.

Physician assisted suicide (PAS) is yet another example of radical individual autonomy. With PAS, individuals have radical autonomy over when and how they choose to die. In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize PAS. Since that time, other countries have followed suit, along with five US States (California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington). The State Legislature of Maryland tried unsuccessfully as recently as this past March (2017) to pass PAS legislation, but the bill was thankfully defeated.

Christians must learn to think through this issue from a biblical worldview. How does the Bible help Christians when it comes to this important issue? PAS denies two equally important biblical realities. First, PAS denies that God is the author of life (Acts 3:15). He is not only the Creator of life (Gen 1:1), but he is the author of life. God alone has the authority to write the script of human life. He created human beings in his image (Gen 1:27) so Christians recognize the sanctity of all human life—from conception to natural death. Human beings have inherent dignity and worth. God has ultimate authority over life and death (1 Sam 2:6; Ps 139:16).

Second, PAS sees suffering as unprofitable, but this is not true. The author of Hebrews writes that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:18). The Apostle Paul writes, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:28–29). Suffering, for the believer, serves the important purpose of conforming the believer into the image of the Son. Suffering is not pointless. Nor is suffering pointless for the unbeliever. Suffering points to the reality of sin and brokenness and to the need for healing and restoration that are ultimately found in Christ Jesus himself. There is much to profit from suffering.

But, some still argue, aren’t Christians supposed to have compassion? Isn’t that what Jesus modeled? True compassion is not found, as some suppose, in escaping suffering, but true compassion is found in recognizing that the Creator has a purpose for allowing suffering to be a part of one’s life (Rom 8:18ff; 2 Cor 4:7–12; 2 Cor 4:16–5:9). Part of that redemption involves making sure that pain and suffering are alleviated while the living still live, not by causing that life’s end.

Suffering itself is not anything new. Suffering has been a part of human life since Genesis 3. The Christian recognizes the reality of suffering in this broken world. Sin has thrown God’s good creation into chaos and God’s image bearers suffer as a result. But with advances in modern medicine, one need not turn to PAS to relieve suffering. Palliative care is a viable option for suffering. Compassion can and should be shown by providing palliative care to those who experience tremendous suffering.

Christians should be the first ones to recognize and decry suffering in this world, but even in the midst of suffering, Christians trust the hand of the all sufficient and benevolent Creator who has a purpose for everything he does. Christians must stand against the rise of radical individual autonomy that sees matters of life and death as individual choices. Christians should stand united against PAS as they recognize the value and dignity of all human life.