The Problem with Ending It All: A Response to Physician-Assisted Suicide

In JoJo Moyes’ 2012 bestselling book, Me Before You, one of the main characters, a young man named Will, intends to take his life by suicide. A motorcycle accident two years prior rendered him a quadriplegic, and now Will also suffers from crippling infections and depression. He mourns the loss of a life filled with success and adventure. Will agrees to put off his planned death for six more months, but only if his mother honors his wish to die.

The book centers on Louisa, Will’s new caretaker, as she and Will’s family make heroic efforts to spend that six months changing his mind about suicide and his life’s worth.

Spoiler Alert: Louisa professes her love for Will, but he decides that it is not enough for him to live. His loved ones are not enough. He goes through with the suicide, leaving behind a devastated family.

In the book, and in the 2016 film adaptation, Will ends his life through physician-assisted suicide (PAS). Currently four states – Oregon, California, Washington and Vermont – have legalized this practice. (PAS is not technically legal in Montana; however, the state operates under a court ruling that allows a doctor who is charged with assisting a suicide to use the patient’s request as a defense.) According to The Economist, between these five states, nearly 50 million Americans, almost one-sixth of the total U.S. population, can now end their lives via a lethal dose prescribed by their doctors.

Americans support the practice in rapidly increasing numbers. A 2015 Gallup poll noted that 68 percent of Americans now favor PAS (up 10 points from the previous year). The poll mentioned that this increase comes mostly from 18- to 34-year-olds, whose support for doctor-assisted suicide climbed nearly 20 points in the previous year, to 81 percent. Right-to-die bills are currently under consideration in at least 19 states and the District of Columbia.

Physician-assisted suicide is dangerous sign of the times, as doctors move from their longstanding oath of doing patients no harm to actually facilitating their death.

“Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks,” states the American Medical Association’s code of ethics. The AMA exhorts doctors: “Instead of participating in assisted suicide, physicians must aggressively respond to the needs of patients at the end of life.”

With near constant advances in technology, decisions surrounding care at the end of life can be murky and require education on our part. A biblical worldview holds that no matter how broken our bodies, God created us in His image (Genesis 1:27). Moreover, God looked at all He had made, and decided that it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Scripture tells us that God holds all of our days in His hands, from conception to a natural death (Psalm 139), and that He is sovereign over the end of our lives (Job 30:23).

Dr. John Dunlop, a geriatric physician and adjunct professor of bioethics at Trinity International University, is the author of Finishing Well to the Glory of God: Strategies from a Christian Physician. Dunlop is convinced that PAS will continue to spread across the country in the next 10 years. “Part of what we as the church need to do is equip Christians to respond to that option,” he said. “They need to realize that doing something positively to end life is wrong.”

“For me, the major issue in physician-assisted suicide is our surrender and control to the Lord,” Dunlop said. “I believe that when we first become Christians, we want God to control our lives and then we engage in a tug of war with Him for the rest of our lives. Every issue that comes up we tend to want to be in control, and hopefully we smarten up and say, ‘Oh Lord, I can’t control this – You take over.’

“But when it comes to the end of life and assisted suicide, we’re very much putting ourselves in the driver’s seat. And I think that’s devastating.”

Dunlop is deeply concerned about the effect of PAS on both medical care and the culture.

“We never rave about our uncle who committed suicide or talk about how strong he was,” Dunlop said. “We talk about our uncle who battled cancer and showed his strength. As a culture, we value people who go through tough things. We rave about people who climb Mount Everest. We congratulate people who run marathons. We exalt in people’s demonstration of strength, but we don’t brag about the person who quit halfway through the race.”

While extolling modern advances in end-of-life care, Dunlop mentioned his concern that doctors will lose interest in the ability to effectively control symptoms as assisted suicide becomes a widely available option.

“Killing them [people] is not the only way to prevent suffering,” said Rob Moll, a journalist, hospice volunteer and author of The Art of Dying. “We have technologies to alleviate suffering. And there are huge and unexplored areas to talk about how beneficial it is to be caring for someone at the end of their lives.”

“There is a distinction between family members who are hands-on caregivers and those family members who live in another state and can’t participate,” Moll said. “The grieving process is totally different for those people. And I think it would be the same for those people whose loved one died through assisted suicide. Without the gift of hands-on caregiving, it will be harder to process the grief.”

Kara Tippets, a young mother of four who recently died at home in hospice care from breast cancer, wrote an open letter to a young brain cancer patient, Brittany Maynard, who publicly declared her intent to die via physician-assisted suicide.

Wrote Tippets:

In choosing your own death you are robbing those that love you with such tenderness, the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending you love in your last breaths. … That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath, matters – but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed.

Knowing Jesus, knowing that He understands my hard goodbye, He walks with me in my dying. My heart longs for you to know Him in your dying. Because in His dying, He protected my living. My living beyond this place.

Brittany, when we trust Jesus to be the carrier, protector, redeemer of our hearts, death is no longer dying. My heart longs for you to know this truth, this love, this forever living.

In speaking of others who decide to take their lives, Tippets concluded:

My heart hurts that they have decided to swim from the shores of grace that it protected in our living and dying. I get to partner with my doctor in my dying, and it’s going to be a beautiful and painful journey for us all. But, hear me – it is not a mistakebeauty will meet us in that last breath.

See more information from Focus on the Family on physician-assisted suicide and end-of-life issues.

Navigating end-of-life care can take its toll on loved ones. If you need further guidance and encouragement, Focus on the Family has licensed, professional Christian counselors available to speak with you. 

Copyright © 2015 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

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