In the Old Testament’s first book of Samuel, there is the following historical report on the king of Israel:
“Then said Saul unto his armor bearer: ‘Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me,’ but his armor bearer would not; for he was sore afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it.”
This is an historical account of suicide that, but for the cowardice of the armor bearer, who couldn’t bring himself to kill royalty, might have been euthanasia or mercy killing. In consideration of the Philistine treatment on the wall of Bethshan, this was a merciful release. Saul was fortunate in being able to administer his own death blow, even though sorely wounded, because otherwise he would have been nailed to the walls of Bethshan alive, instead of dead, and left to the mercies of the vultures.
There is no biblical condemnation of King Saul’s suicide – in fact, David said:
“Lo how the mighty have fallen” – an obvious tribute and mourning, rather than condemnation.
Neither is there any particular condemnation regarding the suicides of either Abimelech or Samson. There is no specific condemnation of suicide or euthanasia from Jesus Christ.
Most of the opponents of euthanasia will cite the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” This argument demands extreme pacifism and, in fact, vegetarianism. The more accurate translation: “Thou shalt do no murder” eliminates implication of euthanasia, since murder is legally defined as killing with malice aforethought.
The families, friends and physicians who put love above legality, courage above comfort and heed Jesus’ admonition “blessed are the merciful” in applying euthanasia have risked their reputations, their liberty and even their lives. Certainly this cannot be said to represent malice, as is indicated by the growing number of juries that acquit euthanasists.
Suicide, or euthanasia, under extenuating circumstances had no early philosophical opposition, as it was advocated by Pythagoras, Plato, Cicero, Epictetus and Seneca. Suicide was committed by Hannibal, Diogenes, Socrates – who could have escaped – Cleopatra and Aristotle, who, like Seneca, chose the lesser of two evils.
It seems foolish to brand all of these leaders as either insane or cowardly.
The late Gen. William Dean, the hero of Korea, holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor and prisoner of war, publicly asserted that he would request being supplied with a suicide pill if ever again he were to go into battle with communists. This statement has been criticized by a number of Christians, who are ignorant of the fact that St. Jerome permitted suicide in defense of chastity! They are ignorant of the fact that patristic Father Lactantius (tutor of Emperor Constantine’s son) allowed for suicide in the face of impending torture.
Upon investigation, the main opposition to euthanasia seems to come from St. Thomas Aquinas, who was presumptuous enough to claim that suicide is a sin of which it is impossible to repent.
In England, until 1823, a suicide’s body was buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart. Until 1882, suicides were buried at night, with all their property confiscated.
Across the Channel in 17th century Brittany, the local Roman Catholic Church was much more merciful in use of the “Holy Stone.” With permission of the priest, the family of an incurable sufferer might drop a large stone on his head. The question faced in this case was not a matter of choosing between life and death, but a choice between a death of lingering agony and a death which is swift and merciful.
One of the most courageous and honorable men who ever lived was the famed “Man for All Seasons,” St. Thomas More, who was executed for daring to protest the wholesale assault on holy matrimony by King Henry VIII.
More has rightfully been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church even though his great literary work, “Utopia,” justifies euthanasia. In Ireland, in a later century, the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin was the author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” the Very Rev. Jonathan Swift.
The late Episcopal moral theologian, author and theological seminary professor, the Rev. Joseph Fletcher, described Jonathan Swift’s death as follows:
“For any moral man with spiritual integrity, the mere fact of being alive is not as important as the terms of living. Jonathan Swift, the satirist and Irish clergyman, after a life of highly creative letters, ended it all in a horrible and degrading death. It was a death degrading to himself and those close to him. His mind crumbled to pieces. It took him eight years to die while his brain rotted. The pain in Swift’s eye was so acute that sometimes it took five men to hold him down to keep him from tearing out his eye with his own hands. For the last three years he sat and drooled. Knives had to be kept entirely out of his reach. When the end came, finally, his fits of convulsion lasted 36 hours.
“We can easily conceive of Dean Swift grabbing madly for a knife or a deadly drug. He was demoralized, without a visage of true self-possession left in him. He wanted to commit what the law calls suicide and what vitalistic ethics calls sin. Standing by was some good doctor trembling with sympathy and frustration. Secretly perhaps, he wanted to commit what the law calls murder. (But like Saul’s armor bearer he would not – for he was sore afraid.)
“Meanwhile, necessity, blind and unmoral, irrational physiology and pathology, made the decision. It was in reality no decision at all, no moral behavior in the least, unless submission to physical ruin and spiritual disintegration can be called a decision and a moral choice.”
Even so conservative a pope as Pius XII endorsed dysthanasia, which means the withdrawal of extraordinary measures to permit the patient – already virtually dead – to pass on in peace.
This pontiff also justified halting even artificial respiration in certain cases, if reanimation “constitutes a burden which in conscience it cannot accept.”
What sort of ethics command us to deny the same merciful release to a suffering human being that we would not hesitate to administer to a suffering horse or dog?
What sort of ethics equate the will of God with anything as horrendous as cancer but not with a hypodermic of a merciful physician, who puts love above legality and adherence to one of the Bible’s beatitudes:
“Blessed are the merciful.”