Case in Point


This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

Public Testimony (speech: Arizona Senate Committee on Health and Welfare)

Senate Bill No. 1177
July 1976
“Medical treatment to sustain life”

My name is Robert Case. I’m pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in Phoenix. I am here this afternoon to caution this Committee as to the wisdom of passing Senate bill 1177. I speak as a Christian pastor, committed to the Bible as the rule for Christian faith and practice, as well as containing the principles for sound and healthy societal functioning.

While S.B. 1177 does not, in itself, appear particularly frightening or malevolent the trend it represents and the codifying of that trend does, indeed, cause me some concern. As to the particulars of the bill, there are certain phrases and words in the document which are hazy and imprecise, such as,” terminal condition”, “treatment designed solely to sustain life or the life processes”, and “heroic or extraordinary measures.” This haziness in language tends to open the door for value judgments and decisions based on one’s ethical framework (be that framework well-defined or not).

It is to the question of the ethical framework surrounding this bill which I would like to address my comments today. The ethical question this bill raises is this: Is it permissible (even desirable) to painlessly destroy an innocent life (innocent meaning not under society’s civil condemnation) because that life is no longer worth living? The parties involved in this ethical question are the sick person and the healthy persons around that sick person.

Looking quickly at each of these two parties I hope to explain my objection to this bill before you. Turning first to the healthy persons (family and doctors) the historic Christian position has always been that the destruction of another’s life can only be done as an unconditional necessity. That is, the destruction of life cannot be just one possibility among several possibilities – it must be the only possibility. We must be locked-in to death for it to be an acceptable option in the eyes of Christianity. Keeping someone alive has always been seen in the Christian mind as incomparably more important that the facilitating of death.

In the Old Testament we read in I Samuel 31:3-4 about King Saul’s desire to be killed by a friend: “And the battle went heavily against Saul, and the archers hit him; and he was badly wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armor bearer, ‘Draw your sword and pierce me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and pierce me through and make snort of me.’ But his armor bearer would not, for he was greatly afraid.” Here King Saul was in great pain and suffering, and he wanted to be relieved of that pain and anguish. He also wanted to “die with dignity” and not die ignominiously at the hands of the despised “uncircumcised.” His faithful Hebrew armor bearer, though, would not consent to Saul’s euthanasian request.

We see this same commitment to preserve life given expression by our Lord himself in the New Testament (Matt. 5:34-36): “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance: the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed mo, I was, sick and you looked after me….” The people responded to Jesus by asking him, “When did we see you sick (and help you)…? The King will reply (Jesus says), ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” The point and principle being taught here by Jesus is that the Christian concern for prolonging life (by food, clothing and medical care) is an active and aggressive concern richly rewarded by God. (cf, James 2:15-16).

The Christian responsibility of the healthy person to the sick person is not, therefore, benign neglect but rather an active effort to relieve pain and suffering and sickness. It is the traditional Christian position that to fight against sickness and death is a holy war against sin itself. The Psalmist says (Ps, 82:3-6), “Vindicate the weak and fatherless, do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” Job, in his defense before his accusing friends proudly exclaims (29:12-13), “Because I delivered the poor who cried for help, and the orphan who had no helper. The blessing of the one on the brink of destruction came to me….” In other words, part of Job’s defense was that he saved a person’s life from being destroyed when that life was on its eve of destruction.

But Christianity is not unsympathetic to pain and great discomfort either. In Proverbs 31:6 we see an exhortation to give a drug to alleviate great pain and physical distress. The Apostle Paul exercises that responsibility in his letter to his young protégé, Timothy, in I Timothy 5:23 when, he counsels him to use a drug for an intestinal ailment.

Turning other part under question – the sick person, and her desire to have her life destroyed, There are two considerations here: Does the sick person personally request to have her life terminated (i.e. so called “living will”), or, is the sick person unable to make such a personal request?

First, the personal request: The Bible is uniform in teaching that the personal, deliberate destruction of one’s own life is found only in a context of God’s judgment, whether it’s referring to Sampson (Judges 16:30), King Saul (I Sam.31), Ahithophel (2 Sam. 17:23), Saul’s armor bearer (I Sam 31), Judas (Matt. 27:5) or anyone else. Indeed, the Scriptures speak of two of God’s most favored people as enduring great pain and suffering in their pursuit of life.

In the Old Testament, Job, having lost his income, his possessions, having had his family destroyed, and having been afflicted with festering boils “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” refused to take the advice that he “curse God and die.” While he bitterly complained (“I despise my life,” – 9:21), he, knew that for him to take his own life out of convenience for himself was in violation of God’s view of the sanctity of life.

In the New Testament, Paul the apostle gives a review of his physical beatings and sufferings in 2 Cor. 11:23-33 with the summation that he had been “exposed to death again and again.” In another letter he says it would be “far better” for him, personally, to die (Phil. 1:21-24) so that he might be relieved of the agony of this life. And yet we see him in the book of Acts constantly defending himself against the onslaught of death, be it death by a mob or death by the state. Paul too realized that the Word of God teaches that deliberate self-destruction for one’s own convenience, or the convenience of others is not sanctioned by God. This does not speak to the question of sacrificing one’s life for another life.

Finally, I turn to the question (not specifically dealt with in S.B. 1177 but implicit in the bills very existence): Can a healthy person destroy an innocent sick person’s life when the sick person cannot decide for herself? This question can be answered “Yes” only if the assumption is made that life consists solely in its own usefulness to society. That is to say, when a life loses its utilitarian value to the community then that community (be it the family or society in general) can destroy that “useless” life whenever it deems proper. The idea that a family ought (or even has the right) to be spared the trauma and tragedy of an incurably ill relative comes not from humanitarian concerns but rather from the idea of a super-human race of healthy people being able to rid itself of a sub-human race of sick, and therefore worthless, people.

Again, the historic Christian commitment has been that the ultimate value, the ultimate dignity of life comes not from the person but from God. If any other criteria are used to judge the quality or dignity or value of life, society will find itself governed by consensus ethics where 51% of the people at any given time will determine what is socially valuable (i.e., right) and what is socially discardable (i.e., wrong) at any given time. Our value and dignity originates not in our own worth or activities but in the “alien dignity” belonging to God which is ours because each one of us was created in the image of that perfect and holy God.

To the orthodox Christian, there is no such thing as “death with dignity,” only “life with dignity.” Death is a result of sin and therefore always undignified. It is because of this profound indignity that death and sickness must always be resisted.

In conclusion, Senators, I would urge you to vote against S.B. 1177 as a needless and perhaps even ominous piece of legislation.


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