24 September 2012
The tragic case of Evans and Rosie Mott has been in the news lately (see e.g. NZ Herald Sept 14, 2012). Evans Mott was the man who pleaded guilty to a charge of assisting in the suicide of his wife and was acquitted. Part of the reason for his acquittal was that his wife recorded a short film “so that nobody is under the allusion that I’ve been coerced into what I have done.” Rosie Mott had the degenerative disease MS for which there is no cure, and when her health deteriorated rapidly Evans assembled a kit which enabled her to take her own life. The case is tragic, and it pains me to even talk about it. Rosie Mott was just 55. Evans is a little older, but has lost his wife and life partner far too early.
One of the saddest things in the newspaper report is the comment “[f]or Rosie to be that sick and to die alone by her own hand, that’s not right. Our family should have been around her to say goodbye.” Behind this comment is a veiled reference to euthanasia in support of the view that Rosie Mott should have been able to die with dignity by her own hand (or assisted by family members or a health professional) without anyone having to face prosecution.
As expected these events have been accompanied by renewed calls to legalise euthanasia. In fact, we are told that 63.2% of the population support this, and Labour MP Maryan Street has a Private Member’s Bill proposing a law change to bring this about. In the same issue of the Herald, Grant Gillett from Otago University and Fiona Stewart of Exit International debated the issue. Grant Gillett points out that the law in NZ permits the withdrawal of life-saving or life-prolonging treatment when that it justified. Fiona Stewart argues that the community wants more than this, and that we should be permitted to more actively terminate the life of a person with a terminal illness on their terms.
I don’t want to critique what Rosie Mott did, when she felt it necessary to end her life. I do want to critique the calls for the legalisation of euthanasia. Etched in my mind is the death of my own father in October 2004. The entire family was around him in his room at the rest home, along with some of his friends. He didn’t want to die; in fact he struggled to stay alive, but in the end he had to submit, and God who had given him life some 86 years earlier, took his life away. “He went to be with Jesus” we say, which is so much better (Phil 1:23). Indeed it was better. The last few months had been difficult for him as he struggled with congestive heart failure, and also for my mother as she had struggled to care lovingly for her husband of sixty years. When she could no longer do that we took the reluctant step of putting him in a rest home where he had proper professional care. It was just around the corner from home, and mother was able to spend most of every day with him.
When the end came, the doctor said that they could have “brought him around,” but that it was better not to, since he would only relapse in a few days.
There are several issues with the acceptance of euthanasia. One is the issue of autonomy and control. The proponents of euthanasia want to remain in control of life. But the gift of life in conception and the taking of life in death is not a human prerogative. It is God’s prerogative. God gives life and God takes life away. Control of the timing of death and the manner of death is something that God holds to himself. As Edwin Hui writes (The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, p. 355), “to choose death is to illegitimately assume authority in an area that has not been assigned to our control.” Those who would legalise euthanasia want to take hold of something that belongs to God alone. This is surely the height of human hubris.
Another issue touches on the question of disability. To advocate then, that we should have the right to terminate the life of a person disabled with a terminal illness, assumes that quality of life is the supreme good. But human value and dignity does not depend on quality of life. To quote Hui again, “each person has a God-given source of value and dignity beyond any mere physical well-being and social utility” (ibid.).
Our value and dignity as humans is because we are created in God’s image. And disabled people are no less God’s image than those of us who are able-bodied. God responded to Moses’ claim that he was not eloquent with “Who gives speech to mortals?” But God did not stop there. He continued, “Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exod 4:11). If the inability to speak and deafness and blindness come from God, then all disability and illness have their ultimate source in God. Our obligation is not to terminate the life of a disabled person, whatever the disability, but to nurture and care for that person.
God calls us all to live our lives in faithful submission to God. We are called to accept from God’s hand all that comes our way. And this includes our own death, including the manner of our death and its timing. To quote Pope John Paul, “the Christian who thus accepts his own death and, recognizing his own condition as a creature ... confidently surrenders himself into the merciful hands of the Father ... reaches the height of his own human and Christian identity and achieves his ultimate destiny” (Pope John Paul II, “To Recover the Meaning of Life,” The Pope Speaks 35 no. 2 (1990): 106). This is our Christian calling, not to seek to end life prematurely.