I was recently taken aback to read that medical assistance-in-dying (MAID) was performed in a church in Manitoba. MAID, more properly referred to as physician-assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia, is the act of deliberately causing the patient’s death upon their considered request. Since it was legalized in 2016, the frequency of death by MAID has grown rapidly as Canadian society becomes more aware of and accustomed to the procedure. Eligibility for MAID continues to expand; adults with disabilities are eligible to have their lives ended, even if they are not dying, and we may soon see death being offered to those struggling with mental illness and to children.
Those who are persuaded that ending the patient is an effective and appropriate intervention for serious suffering will be hard pressed to find a form of suffering for which MAID is not an appropriate consideration.
To read of MAID being performed in a church, though, seems to elevate it to a whole new level of acceptance and celebration. Family and friends were present to give their love and goodbyes. They sang a hymn together and the grandchildren sang for their grandmother one last time. Death was faced and embraced. They called it a “crossing over” ceremony, a hopeful term portent with anticipation of continued existence beyond this life.
In some ways, this all sounds very Christian, and it raises important questions for Christians who are contemplating death. If church is the place where we worship our Maker, might it not also be a good place to choose to meet our Maker? Can faithful Christians “baptize” MAID to make it an act of religious worship in the house of God? At the very least, can we accept that MAID might be permissible for some Christians, a matter of indifference and personal choice?
We cannot. Beneath a veneer of compassion and respect, and despite the sincere intentions of those involved, MAID constitutes a profound violation of human dignity and value and an affront to the high status granted to us by our Creator. It’s easy to forget this when our culture seems to wholeheartedly embrace MAID as moral progress. So must we remind ourselves of the true nature and depth of human value.
For a start, we must remind ourselves of the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic human value. Extrinsic value derives from what you can do, whereas intrinsic value derives simply from who you are. Extrinsic value depends on your usefulness, whereas intrinsic value is unconditional. Things that we can buy or sell have extrinsic value; things with intrinsic value are priceless. With this distinction in mind, we may consider some reasons why faithful Christians and faithful churches cannot opt for MAID.
First, Christianity affirms the intrinsic value of the human person but the practice of MAID denies it.
As creatures formed in the “image and likeness of God”, we are “crowned with glory and honour” and made “ruler over the works of [God’s] hands.” Our value is so profound that God is intimately and directly aware of us and our needs (“even the hairs of your head are all numbered”) and, shockingly, He gave his only Son in order to redeem us. If love is “value in action”, then behold what love and behold what value Gods find in us! And all this love comes to us unconditionally, irrespective of our abilities. Indeed, this love comes to us in spite of our lack of usefulness to God, our failure and inability to adequately worship and glorify him. The gospel reminds us that we have deep, incalculable, inherent, and intrinsic value.
Can we accept that MAID might be permissible for some Christians, a matter of indifference and personal choice? We cannot.
Yet if this is the case, it is always and intrinsically good that we exist. By deliberately ending our existence, MAID fails to show appropriate regard for the intrinsic goodness of our existence. You cannot express value for that which is priceless by destroying it. To support or provide MAID is to consign us to having mere extrinsic and conditional value; once our life and our existence are no longer of value to us, once we are no longer useful to ourselves, then we no longer have a value that would make it wrong to cause our death.
In our frail human condition, we are continually tempted to doubt our own value and that of others. Christianity recognizes and restores human value to the highest possible degree. Faithful Christians oppose MAID not because we fail to value those who are suffering, but because we value them too much to deliberately and intentionally end them.
Second, Christianity affirms the intrinsic value of the body but MAID denies it.
We are bodily creatures, formed of the “dust of the earth” in the imagery of Genesis. We are body and soul, and our bodies are core to our person and identity. While the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection addresses the spiritual problem of separation from God, it also redeems our physical bodies, for Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily resurrection. The Christian hope is that God “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). Though bodily appetites may occasion temptations to sin, the human body itself is—like all creation—“very good”. We are to care for and nourish our body, to delight in bodily pleasures of food and sex and sport to the glory of God, and to present our “members to God as instruments for righteousness.”
MAID is the act of deliberately ending all bodily function. It treats the body as a means to an end, something that we dispose of once it is irremediably broken and the source of trouble for our mental selves. Let us in no way deny the depth of suffering and grief occasioned by physical brokenness—pain and suffering are real and really evil. Yet just as the disciples tenderly cared for the broken body of our Lord, faithful Christians cannot regard the human body as anything less than priceless.
Third, Christianity affirms that suffering, though evil and tragic, is not pointless. MAID denies this.
The gospel is good news because it affirms that our lives have purpose and meaning that transcend our own purposes and goals; we exist to “glorify God and enjoy him forever”, to praise and worship the One who made us and redeemed us. This is a meaning that cannot be impaired by suffering, for our purpose does not depend on our pleasure. Indeed, suffering only serves to heighten the significance of our lives, for “this light, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Our suffering is not pointless—it’s “doing something”.
MAID understands life to be meaningful only insofar as we can make it meaningful. If our suffering is grievous, irremediable, and our quality of life is unacceptable, why go on? MAID affirms the “uselessness of suffering” and denies that a life of suffering is still objectively meaningful, that those who suffer have a reason to exist that transcends their pain. Given the option of MAID, continued life and suffering almost become an act of choice. Although faithful Christians know that “to depart and be with Christ is far better”, we patiently choose to remain until our work on earth is done and our Lord calls us home. Glory awaits those who wait patiently.
The miracle of the human body moves us to worship. MAID is the act of deliberately ending all bodily function.
I do not write in a spirit of harsh condemnation. Those who offer MAID (some of whom are my friends and colleagues) and those who choose MAID are groping for a solution to the brokenness of the world apart from God. In some respects, they know not what they do. Yet the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ gives faithful Christians a clear vision of human value and of life’s true meaning that makes MAID seem unnecessary and even foolish. Having seen that glory and that vision in the cross of Christ, we cannot turn away.
Faithful Christians and faithful churches cannot choose MAID. Let us do all we can to comfort and care for those who are suffering and those who are dying, accompanying them on their journey toward glory. Let us advocate for our elected representatives to ensure access to palliative care (‘medical aid in living’). And let us remind one another of our incalculable and inherent value in God’s sight by servant-hearted love that never fails to say ‘it is good that you exist’.