Yesterday’s National Post had an interesting article about a 71 year-old, perfectly healthy Vancouver woman who is seeking the right to die alongside her ill husband. This isn’t legal in Canada, but there is an organization in Switzerland (Dignitas) that is apparently willing and able to administer lethal doses of drugs—after counseling, of course—to those looking to check out of this life. Ludwig Minelli, director of Dignitas, says that although assisted suicide was originally advocated as an escape only for the very ill, “it should be an option for anyone who feels they can no longer go on, and has the mental capacity to make the decision.”
Of course this is an approach to life and death that is being hotly protested by many but it’s worth pausing for a moment to get clear exactly why we might be against this. If someone feels they can’t go on, why force them to stick around (just this morning a few of us were having a conversation about whether or not we would want to go on if our spouses happened to die—let’s just say enthusiasm for the idea was mixed)? Well, one refrain that is typically heard on this issue goes something like this: If we allow this then we’re “playing God.” There may be some truth in this statement, but I don’t find it entirely convincing in and of itself.
By the standards of almost any period in history, we’ve been playing God for some time now. Because of our technological proficiency, we can prolong life well beyond what could ever have been called “natural” and we can bring children into the world who would have never stood a chance even half a century ago. Is this “playing God?” Well, kind of. And if human beings are already “playing God” by allowing and preserving life artificially, why not allow them to do the same on the other end?
I think that Ruth Von Fuchs, head of the Right to Die Society, helpfully isolates the central issue when she says that some people simply “do not see life as an obligation or ‘indentured servitude’ that must be continued no matter what.” This, rather than the question whether or not we’re “playing God,” highlights the real question, from my perspective.
Everything depends on what we understand human beings and human life to be. Is life a gift or a burden? Is it something which we are entrusted with and for which there is some goal or telos or is it a purposeless process that produces or happens to us? Are we the purposive creation of a good God or the random results of random processes? Does life represent an opportunity to become what we were created for or is it a form of “indentured servitude?” How we answer these big worldview type questions will go a long way in determining how we think about the ethics of assisted suicide.
If we believe that we simply are the accidental results of chemical reactions emerging from the primordial ooze, and that we have no future beyond the end of our physical lives, it makes all the sense in the world to end life whenever and however we want. When there is no objective goal for human life, no final end or purpose for which we are created, no obligations to God, then the only goals/purposes/ends that matter are the ones that I choose for myself. And if I’ve had enough of taking up space on the planet, then that’s really all that matters. In a sense, choosing when we die is just the final (entirely logical and consistent) step in a life devoted (implicitly or explicitly) to a particular worldview, with a particular understanding of who we are and what life is for.
So the big question is not “should we or should we not ‘play God?'” but “how should we ‘play God’ and for what purpose?'” Because we already do “play God” and, in a limited and properly understood way, this is exactly what we are called to do, from a Christian perspective. In fact, it is precisely because courageous women and men have “played God” by applying their hearts and minds and hands and feet to problems that threaten human life that we at least have the potential to now live longer and healthier lives than at any point in history.
Of course we are not God. We cannot, obviously, create something out of nothing nor, as Easter reminds us, can we bring life out of death. There are many things that God can do and we cannot and for this we should be grateful. But there are also things God does that we can and ought to do (Eph 5:1-2). We are to cultivate the earth and promote life and flourishing. We are to imitate God in our compassion, our mercy, our pursuit of justice, the healing of the sick, and many other areas. We are to “play God” in bringing light and life out of dark and hopeless situations. And we are to do all of this because we believe, fundamentally, that God is for life and that life, not death, will be God’s final word on his world.
But when our anthropology and our ontology are confused and inadequate—which, I would argue, they certainly are in our twenty-first century post-Christian context—we can begin to see the value of life as determined solely by whatever enjoyment or fulfillment we happen to be extracting from it at the moment. And when this is the case, the door is open “playing God” in entirely inappropriate and destructive ways. What we ultimately need is not more laws and restrictions (although these can help), but a better and more consistent understanding of who we are, what we’re doing here, and what we can legitimately hope for.