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Religion & the Right to Die

The Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Scotland is non-sectarian. Our members include Christians of many denominations, including Roman Catholics, as well as Buddhists and members of other faiths, and humanists, agnostics and atheists. Religious questions involving euthanasia and suicide must be individually resolved, with or without one's spiritual adviser, and according to one's belief.

Opinion polls consistently show a majority of people professing all variety of faiths support a change in the law for voluntary euthanasia. Even amongst Roman Catholics, more people support euthanasia than oppose it (a poll in Scotland showed over 50% support, in spite of the church's opposition).

Official church policies usually oppose euthanasia. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest single funder opposed to euthanasia. It invests more money in its fight against euthanasia than all the combined resources of right to die societies around the world many times over.

Tactics in support of the Roman Catholic Church's position apparently include disinformation (usually claiming no safeguards) and threats of excommunication - this was well documented in the heated campaigns of the USA and elsewhere.

Of the other churches, the Episcopalian (Anglican) Unitarian, Methodist, Presbyterian and Quaker movements are amongst the most liberal, allowing at least individual decision making in cases of active euthanasia. Hindu and Sikh Dharma may also leave it to individual conscience.

Nowadays, few faiths prohibit passive euthanasia, or refusal of treatment decisions. Those that do tend to oppose it include conservative Evangelicals, Islam, and the Mormon Church.

Suicide (self-deliverance) is accepted by a number of faiths. There is a Jaina ethic of voluntary death through fasting, for instance. It is often thought that the Roman Catholic Church absolutely prohibits suicide, but Catholic theologians have confirmed that the prohibition, whilst being the Vatican's current position, is not an inviolable one.

Church hierarchies are generally not amenable to reasoning and arguments, however well they are constructed, from the laity. Cultural forces and public opinion appear to have an effect over time.

Although accepted by the very early church, mainstream Christian beliefs concerning suicide were well documented by Thomas Aquinas (circa 1225-1274) who condemned suicide because:

  • "it violates one's natural desire to live"
  • "it harms other people"
  • "life is the gift of God and is thus only to be taken by God"

    Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was the first major dissenter among European writers. He wrote 5 essays which touched on the subject of suicide, arguing that suicide should be considered a matter of personal choice, and that it is a rational option under some circumstances.

    In the U.S.,The Unitarian-Universalist Association, a liberal group, issued a statement in 1988 in support of euthanasia and assisted suicide choice, if there are proper precautions in place to avoid abuse. Similar statements were made by the United Church of Christ, and the Methodist Church on the US West coast.

    In Netherlands 1972 the Dutch Reformed Church published a paper in which euthanasia was conditionally accepted as a humane way of dying. In the Netherlands, Catholic or Dutch Reformed clergymen may be present at VE deaths.

    Many religious orders in the United States invite (in some cases require) their members to consider a living will of some kind.

    Many prominent clerics support euthanasia - the Bishop of Durham (Dr David Jenkins), the late Bishop Alastair Haggart (former VESS Convener), Bishop Hare Duke (VESS member), the Reverend Andrew Hill (VESS Committee Member), Lord Soper (Methodist Life Peer), Canon William Purcell (ex-president of VES), Canon Dick Shepherd and Dean Ing (founding fathers of the voluntary euthanasia movement in 1935), Revd John Brooke (United Church of Christ Minister and Director of Americans for Dying With Dignity).

    "A common objection in religious quarters is that suffering is part of the divine plan for the good of man's soul, and must therefore be accepted. Does this mean that the physician's Hippocratic Oath is opposed to Christian virtue and doctrine? If this simple and naive idea of suffering were a valid one, then one would not be able to give our moral approval to anaesthetics, or to provide any medical relief for human suffering. Such has been the objection of many religionists at every stage of medical conquest, for example the use of anaesthetics at childbirth." - the ethicist, Joseph Fletcher

    "Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. ... In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to "take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it". - John Paul II, On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life, Evangelium Vitae, 73.

    "...For it is a question of the violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity." - Roman Catholic Declaration on Euthanasia

    Further reading

    Playing God - 50 Religions' Views on Your Right to Die, by Gerald Larue (Moyer Bell, 1996)

    Perspectives on Death and Dying, edited by Arthur Berger, Rev. Paul Badham, Austin Kutscher, Joyce Berger, Ven. Michael Perry, John Beloff (Charles Press 1989)

    To Die or Not to Die? edited by Arthur and Joyce Berger (Praeger 1990)

    A Catholic View of Mercy Killing, by Daniel Maguire, in: Beneficent Euthanasia, edited Marvin Kohl (prometheus 1975)

    Concilium - Suicide and the Right to Die, edited by Jacques Pohier and Dietmar Mieth)

    The Tibetan Book of living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche (Random House 1992)

    Ultimate Freedom is to Surrender Your Life, by Bishop Hare Duke (Scotland on Sunday, 18 July 1993)

    Professed Religious Affiliation and the Practice of Euthanasia, by Peter Baume, Emma O'Malley and Adrian Bauman (Journal of Medical Ethics 1995;21:49-54)

    The Bible Suicides, by BM Barraclough (Acta Psych.Scand. 1992; 86:64-69)

    Bishop Backs Calls for Euthanasia, by Dr David Jenkins, Bishop of Durham (Northern Echo 11 July 1992)

    Choosing our Time to Die, by Rev Canon Arthur Fielder (Daily Telegraph 1 June 1988)

    Sanctity and Autonomy, by Chris Docker (EXIT Newsletter Sep 1993)

    Living Good Deaths, by Revd Andrew Hill (EXIT Newsletter (Sep 1993)

    A Theological Perspective on Euthanasia, by Bishop Alastair Haggart (VESS Newsletter Sep 1991)

    A Report from India: The Jaina Ethic of Voluntary Death, by P Bilimoria (Bioethics 1992; 6(4): 331-355)

    The Way of Religious Conflict, by the Ontario Centre for Religious Tolerance (EXIT Newsletter Oct 1995)

    Matters of Life and Death: Attitudes to Euthanasia, by David Donnison and Caroline Bryson, in: British Social Attitudes, the 13th Report, edited by Roger Jowell, John Curtice, Alison Park, Lindsay Brook and Katarina Thomson (Dartmouth 1966)

    Professed Religious Affiliation and the Practice of Euthanasia, by P. Baume, E. O'Malley and A. Bauman (Journal of Medical Ethics 1995 Feb; 21(1):49-54

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