Magazines 2024 Jul - Aug How Should We Then Die? A Christian Response to Physician-Assisted Death

How Should We Then Die? A Christian Response to Physician-Assisted Death

02 July 2024 By Nathan Scott

An extended review of a 2024 book by Ewan C. Goligher, M.D.

Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.

Book by Ewan C. Goligher, M.D. Lexham Press, 2024. 146 pages. $19 (e-book $13)

What if death was the only way to end intense pain? For many, physician-assisted death seems like the best option. The Canadian government has declared it a legitimate medical treatment and is seeking to expand the scope of who qualifies. Ewan C. Goligher (professor of medicine at the University of Toronto) aims to provide a Christian response to this difficult situation.

His book takes an honest look at why someone might request physician-assisted death. In response to this complex reality, Goligher presents the Christian answer of intrinsic human value and the need to help people find an answer to their suffering that does not involve intentional death.

Before responding, it is essential to understand the other perspective. In this case, Why, and by whom, is physician-assisted death requested? Statistically the majority of those who seek medically assisted death are white, financially secure, and non-religious. The purpose is commonly stated as loss of dignity. These people think that they are simply a burden on the government, hospital staff and family, while they contribute nothing.

When someone is a burden on their loved ones and a drain on society, why should they continue living? Goligher points to the problem with that question – the origin of value. For much of Western society value is extrinsic. It comes from outside and is based on what we contribute. Goligher argues that even non-religious perspectives recognize that people have intrinsic value; value from inside. Each person has worth because they are a human being. Period.

To suggest that death is an option for someone is to say that their life lacks value. If every person has intrinsic value, regardless of their societal contribution, death cannot be the answer to intense suffering.

Another factor Goligher presents is that death as a medical treatment is problematic. When a medical treatment is considered, there is research to demonstrate its validity. A doctor, when administering a treatment, is familiar with the expected results (what the patient should expect to experience from the treatment). With death, no one can make any such claim. If a doctor administers death, they are giving an un-tested treatment. No one can claim, “I know what it is like to die.” For anyone to make any claim about death is a faith-based claim.

This raises an ethical dilemma regarding medical treatment. There is no way to verify medically what happens when someone dies, and no doctor is allowed to administer a treatment based purely on faith or religious conviction. So how can death be a legitimate treatment?

Given the problems with physician-assisted death, what is the answer to such intense suffering? Goligher recognizes that for many situations there is no option of relief, but that does not diminish the value of life. He appeals to the “need for transcendent meaning rather than self-invented meaning.”

This transcendent meaning comes from the incarnation, death and resurrection of our Lord, by which our value is recognized. Value in Christ imparts the intrinsic worth in us that allows us to seek another answer to someone’s suffering.

Overall this is a timely and much needed book. There is a lot about which the common Canadian is unaware regarding the suffering many people endure, which leads them to seek death. Goligher has given an excellent overview of this dark reality, with a helpful response. He gives a strong argument against the utilitarian extrinsic value system. Still, his argument for the value of life maintained an unnecessary hold on a utilitarian framework, namely, the notion that God could bring something good from this suffering. This feeds into the mindset of extrinsic value in the sense that my life only has value if it contributes to something. Our life’s worth is not dependent on God using it. It has value because God made it.

Despite this one theological oversight, Goligher’s book is worth reading. It is accessible and well written for any person interested to learn about how the Church can respond to the changing laws around physician-assisted death.

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