Friday, February 7, 2020
Tags: Abortion, Audio, Euthanasia
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, February 7, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Euthanasia and the All-Consuming Logic of the Culture of Death: A Move Toward the Complete Destruction of the Moral Foundation of Medicine
By any measure, this has been one of the most intensely political weeks in American history, and politics is important and in this case politics has been unavoidable. At the end of the week, we need to shift to some other issues both nationally and internationally that are very important in terms of worldview analysis and they also demand our attention. One is a news article that is datelined from Belgium.
The international press has given more attention to this story in Europe than in North America, but the New York Times did run an article with the headline, "Belgium Acquits Three Doctors in Assisted Suicide Case." Elian Peltier is the reporter and we are told, "A Belgian court last Friday acquitted three doctors who had been charged with manslaughter by poisoning in a landmark case that for the first time charged health professionals criminally under Belgium's euthanasia law."
The article goes on to tell us that euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002. It's also legal in the Netherlands. It's legal in Luxembourg, but as the New York Times tells us, it has long been debated in European countries. "While certain forms of assisted suicide are practiced in France and Switzerland, the Belgian law goes further." Indeed when we are looking at euthanasia, the slide into the culture of death is most apparent in two nations, Belgium and the Netherlands. Luxembourg, a nation of far smaller population is to be added to the list, but the political significance is really the Netherlands and Belgium. Those nations have not only legalized euthanasia, they have come to the point where they have so embraced the idea of death that euthanasia has become a part of the culture.
Now as you see in this article, we're told that Belgium's legalization of euthanasia goes back to 2002. There was a very interesting hinge moment at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century when the unthinkable became thinkable when it comes to the end of life. There had been open debates about euthanasia and assisted suicide for decades, but for very important and understandable reasons, Western civilization and the nations of Europe and North America had until then steadfastly resisted the calls for the legalization or the moral acceptance of euthanasia.
What's euthanasia? Well, it's the compound of two Greek words. The two Greek words together mean “the good death,” and euthanasia has been at least discussed by human beings going all the way back to ancient Greece and ancient times. It comes down to the hope for, or now even the demand for, death on one's own terms. That is to say, “We will accept death in this way at this time under these circumstances, but not under other circumstances.”
But what has been the major check on euthanasia or physician assisted suicide throughout Western history? It has been most importantly the conscience of Christianity, but even before the conscience that came with Christianity, there was a very important medical principle that goes all the way back to the Hippocratic oath. That is the ancient oath for physicians that goes all the way back to classical Greece. That oath includes as its very first and most important words, “First, do no harm.” Now, what followed from that principle is that a physician must never act to bring about death or disability or injury, but must always act to bring about life and the restoration and continuation of life, not to be an agent of death, but always as an agent of life and an agent of health. Now as you think about the practice of medicine, it would seem that that would be axiomatic and it has been. You might argue that actually it has been now for thousands of years, but increasingly it's not. If you're thinking about ominous turns in our culture, it's hard to come up with one that is more ominous than this.
When you're looking at this headline story from Belgium, it tells us that even as Belgium has continued to liberalize its euthanasia and assisted suicide laws, it has now reached the point where doctors were arrested and charged with a criminal form of manslaughter, that is a form of murder which is not premeditated. That is to say we make a distinction between first degree murder in the United States, that is premeditated, planned, intentional murder and murder that might come about by negligence or even by accident, often referred to as manslaughter, but still a felony criminal offense where there is criminal responsibility. Under the law in Belgium, the current law, these three physicians were at varying degrees of responsibility charged with manslaughter because they had brought about the death of a woman by physician-induced death and the argument came from some of the woman's relatives that she had not really been qualified as a candidate for euthanasia largely because of psychiatric diagnosis.
The New York Times summarizes accurately when we are told, "Belgium allows euthanasia if an individual who is incurably ill and encounters unbearable physical or psychological pain makes a voluntary, well-considered, and repeated request without external pressure." Then we're told, "Since 2014, minors can also request euthanasia under certain conditions."
Well, one of the things we need to note is that when you are looking at the logic of euthanasia, it can't stop and become stable at any point. For example, when euthanasia was first legalized, it was legalized with the assurance the only persons who will be able to request euthanasia will be those who have very clearly a terminal diagnosis of disease. Then that was reformulated into, “No, we're not going to stop there even though we told you we would. Now we're going to press forward to say that euthanasia should be accessible for a person regardless of whether or not there's a terminal diagnosis who is in unbearable physical pain.” Of course that requires diagnosis, that requires definition, and those who were the proponents of the euthanasia law and liberalizing that law said, “We assure you it would be wrong to go further. We're going to stop right here.” Behind that entire law was the premise and it was explicit that the person making the request must be psychologically sound, must not be suffering from some kind of psychological diagnosis, and must not have, as the New York Times said, external interference, and must make repeated claims, and of course must be an adult.
As we have seen, this has now become a very different situation. This is not stable. So in Belgium and in the Netherlands and as we shall see elsewhere, the demand then comes to say, well if it's morally right and legally acceptable for an adult under these circumstances to make this request, then how could it be forbidden adolescents? Then if adolescents, how can it be forbidden children? If there is the category of unbearable physical pain, then who is to say that anyone who is bearing what might be defined as unbearable psychological or psychiatric or emotional pain should be forbidden this same kind of socially sanctioned and medically enforced release?
Now in the larger picture, the most ominous slide is into euthanasia itself, but we also have to make a categorical distinction between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Now you'll note that the law in every single one of these European nations that defines euthanasia, it defines it as “necessarily voluntary euthanasia,” which is to say the person whose life is being brought to an end has to be the decider, has to be the moral agent. It cannot be brought about by another moral agent and it cannot be brought about under duress.
Now as those operating from a Christian worldview or for that matter, any worldview that values human life have understood, involuntary euthanasia follows logically on the heels of what is called voluntary euthanasia. Now, why is that so? Well, for one thing there is no human being who is actually without outside pressure. That is simply a non-existent human being. Every single one of us is in a web of social relationships, and those social relationships imply something. Now, what's the point here? Well, let's consider that you have an aged person and you have an aged person who is in a physical decline. That physical decline becomes more expensive when it comes to end of life care than at other points in the human life and perhaps the family has built up a certain amount of wealth, but that wealth is going to disappear. It's going to dissipate if the elderly person continues to consume so much of those resources when it comes to medical care. Well, even though the younger members of the family might not say, "We'd be better off if you're gone," that is actually a logic that is unavoidable if you accept the idea of euthanasia.
It's not just individuals, it's not just individual families, it's the entire society. The truly horrifying idea that comes very fast is that there would be national policy that would say, “We simply have some people who are too expensive. They're taking up space, they're using up resources. They are not contributing to the common wheel. Therefore, society has a responsibility”—you can see how this will be morally framed—"a responsibility to help some of these people to get off the stage in order to increase the flourishing of those who remain.”
There's another reason why voluntary euthanasia very quickly slides into involuntary euthanasia, and that is that there are people who will carry out the euthanasia even when there might be some question about whether or not the individual was capable of making the request or actually made the request in the way that it is presented. As the New York times tells us about this article, there were three doctors in Belgium who were, "Facing life imprisonment sentences over accusations they had unlawfully poisoned a 38-year-old woman in 2010." The woman, we are told, had requested euthanasia under the law in 2009. The lawyer for the sister of the woman whose life was ended, she said that her sister had suffered, "From depression and heroin addiction and had tried to commit suicide several times." A few months later, the lawyer for the woman said, "She was diagnosed with autism by a psychiatrist."
The Times then reports, "She received a lethal injection on April 27, 2010, in the company of her parents and her two sisters." This sister later argued that her sister deceased had not received sufficient advice and that doctors had not tried to treat her mental illness. "She filed a complaint saying that her sister had not been incurably ill as the Belgian euthanasia law requires."
Well, here is the ominous explosive truth about this story. The three doctors were acquitted and why were they acquitted? Well, they were not necessarily acquitted because of the facts of the case, but rather because they presented the argument in court that if they were found guilty and imprisoned, it would have a chilling effect upon other physicians who were conducting euthanasia or assisted suicide, bringing about the deaths of their patients.
The New York Times reports, "After a two week trial, a twelve person jury in the criminal court of Ghent in Northwestern Belgium cleared the three practitioners, the doctor who made the lethal injection, the general practitioner and a psychiatrist. The lawyer for one of the doctors said, ‘A conviction would have established a dangerous precedent for professionals practicing euthanasia.’ He said he and his peers had received dozens of letters from worried doctors who said they had halted euthanasia procedures for fear of legal consequences."
Well, there it is. The argument evidently won in court that there would be a chilling effect upon physicians killing people if these three doctors were found criminally guilty of having killed a person wrongly. Just consider that that argument was actually made in court and then consider furthermore, it apparently won. The fact is that almost every one of these headlines has followed the same pattern. The doctor was acquitted. You're going to find it extremely difficult to find any court anywhere in a nation that has legally authorized euthanasia that is going to find any medical practitioner, doctor, or otherwise guilty in any sense regardless of the stipulations that are promised in the law. Why? When it comes to this kind of situation, the logic of the culture of death has already progressed so far that courts find themselves unwilling to summon the moral courage to actually say this violated the law because the logic of the culture of death has become so all-consuming that eventually it even consumes all the political promises made by the legislators and it also consumes the entire moral foundation of medicine, period.
The Bible is very honest about death. Jesus even identified death as our enemy. The Bible is very clear about the gift of life. Every single life under every condition, God's gift. God is the author of life and God is the sovereign who decides when death shall happen. Of course, for the Christian, even as death is defined as the final enemy, it is Christ who has defeated death. He defeated death on the cross and in his resurrection. The apostle Paul makes this point abundantly clear in first Corinthians 15. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the promise of our resurrection. That is the resurrection of those who are in Christ as well. Christ is the first fruits of those who will rise after him by the power of his resurrection.
But the Christian biblical worldview also makes very clear that death is a part of the human portion. After all, it was God's judgment upon human sinfulness in Genesis three that we became mortal creatures and death entered into human existence. Of course, one of the primal issues behind that original sin, that first sin, the sin of Adam and Eve was the desire of the creature to have the power, the authority, and the glory of the Creator for the creature to act as if we are God. That is exactly rightly understood what is taking place in the entire process of euthanasia. We say that we are more competent than God. We're more trustworthy than God to determine the circumstances and the timing of our own death.
You'll notice something else. When you have the progression of the logic of euthanasia, it takes place only within a highly secularized environment. That's exactly what you have in the Netherlands, which of course even in the beginning of the 20th century had a very strong Catholic and Protestant identity. After all, one of the most important Protestant theologians of the 20th century, Abraham Kuyper, was actually a prime minister of the Netherlands. Since then, Netherlands has been secularizing at hyper speed. It has been for the last several decades, one of the most morally liberal and theologically secular societies on earth. Belgium, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic in its heritage, has followed basically the very same trajectory. Not quite so liberal as the Netherlands, but that's actually an achievement that would be hard to pull off.
Keep this in mind when you recognize that this logic, the logic of assisted suicide, the logic of euthanasia, it is now not only in Europe, it is now in the United States where several states have already legalized assisted suicide. When it comes to Canada, Canada is moving even faster, attempting evidently to try to catch up with the Netherlands and Belgium when it comes to physician assisted suicide and the logic of euthanasia. Again, it is not an accident that the pattern of secularization, the loss of Christian belief, that it precedes the rise of the logic of euthanasia. Once a nation becomes a secular space, the logic of the culture of death is evidently extremely difficult to resist.
Does Abortion ‘Warp’ American Politics? Looking for a Non-Existent Middle Way
Next, I want to look at an article that appeared in yesterday's edition of the New York Times. This was an opinion piece by Gracie Olmsted, and it's entitled “How Abortion Warps Our Politics.” Now it has central place in the print edition of yesterday's New York Times and of course that appears to be a very important headline, “How Abortion Warps Our Politics,” but how exactly does abortion warp our politics?
Well, Gracie Olmsted argues, "Where will abortion opponent stand in 2020? President Trump recently made his bid for their votes," she writes, "becoming the first president to speak in person at the March for Life in Washington and annual events as 1974. Two days later, the Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg told a woman who called herself a proud pro-life Democrat that he would not support more moderate abortion language in the Democratic platform basically," as Gracie Olmstead says, "suggesting that on this issue she will not find affirmation from her party." Olmstead then makes the correct point that both Democrats and Republicans are, "Doubling down on abortion," although they are doing so in opposing directions.
Now when you look at the article and you look at the headline, it's not abundantly clear that there is a defined argument of exactly how abortion warps our politics, but rather looking at the article, Gracie Olmstead appears to be looking for something of a third way between the approach taken by the Republicans and the Democrats on the issue. Of course, as we've discussed often on The Briefing what we are watching, what we're observing in the midst of all of this is the logic of the two parties becoming more and more clear, and the way it works in any sociological context is that the parties become more clear, the issues become more defined. They eventually work out their own internal logic. And even as that's largely true for individuals, it's more true of social organizations because there are so many activists who are pressing for the logic of the position.
In the most interesting paragraph of her article, Gracie Olmstead writes, "So many abortion opponents, especially those who see themselves as adhering to a consistent life ethic fear the growing partisanship of the abortion debate." Well, just a little historical fact. When you're talking about partisanship on the abortion issue, it is not a recent development. We've traced this often. The issue of abortion did not arise in partisan politics until the 1970s, but by the time you reach 1980 let's just recall that is now 40 years ago—that's not a recent development—the two parties have been on a very clear trajectory in opposing directions becoming ever more defined on the issue of abortion. That became most abundantly clear in 2016, but it's going to become even more clear in 2020. It's going to become more clear in every election cycle thereafter unless there is some major game changer that comes along. It's hard to imagine right now what that might even be.
But one of the reasons I want to point to this article is that Gracie Olmstead referring to Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, says that many people are politically homeless and they are politically homeless because they want to hold to what she defines here as, "A consistent life ethic," and abortion, precisely opposition to abortion, is a part of that ethic, but there's more to it. Now that's an interesting argument, one we need to take up for just a moment—this idea of a consistent life ethic.
It's hard to argue with the words. Who would be against a consistent life ethic? Indeed, we've called for consistency at the beginning of life and the end of life, but interestingly this emerged from Catholic pro-life activists who held other than abortion to more liberal, social, and political positions. So they argued that a consistent, comprehensive life ethic would include not only opposition to abortion, but an entire list of political and policy positions from paid parental leave and childcare to welfare support. Well, you can pretty much go down the list. So what's the logic of the position? Well, put bluntly, the logic is that it's not enough to bring about the end of abortion. That responsibility for human life, its dignity and sanctity, continues after birth. Well, let's just say that's an unassailable position, but we also need to understand it is a politically complex issue and it tends to blur the lines between the absolute necessity of defining abortion as an unmitigated human evil and the murder of the unborn and far more complex and debatable issues about how exactly human flourishing can be enhanced.
In that issue, rightly understood, there are liberal and conservative arguments for how human flourishing is likely to come about. It simply is not politically or morally clarifying to argue for what's called a consistent life ethic and say that that means agreeing with the Republicans on the issue of abortion, but on Democrats with virtually everything else. There's a reason why a party doing that doesn't exist. It is because that is really not a political position that can continue with any consistency for long.
I understand in one sense what Gracie Olmsted's writing about. I wish that the issue of abortion was not a partisan issue in America, but I wish that because I wish—I could only hope and pray—that we would have two major political parties and both of them would affirm the dignity and sanctity of every single human life, but that's not the case and we're not even looking at a close call. We're not looking at any kind of future on this issue that suggests the picture will become anything other than more defined along these lines.
Christianity as Fact, Opinion, or Matter of Taste? Why Christianity Stands or Falls on the Absolute Truth of Its Fact Claims
Next, I want to refer to an article that appeared just in recent days in The Guardian. That's a left wing newspaper amongst the major newspapers published in London. The article's by Ian Sample and it has to do with an interview he did with Brian Greene, who's the director of Columbia University's Center for Theoretical Physics. He's a specialist on string theory and has also worked on, "The forms that extra dimensions may take." His latest book is entitled Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe. Well that sounds like a very interesting title. What exactly is Professor Greene up to? Well, he's up to, in his own words, "Concerned about the lack of expertise or the fact that expertise has come under attack in the U.S. and the UK." The interviewer said, "Should we be worried?" Professor Greene responded, "There are questions that have right and wrong answers as opposed to opinions and we've unfortunately come to a place where many people don't make that distinction."
Now, is that right or is that wrong? Of course, he's right. There is a crucial Christian worldview distinction between matters of fact and matters of opinion or matters of taste. You might have a certain taste about whether or not you want to paint the walls of your living room pale pink or bright blue or orange or purple, but that is a matter of taste. There is no objective reality to the rightness or wrongness of a color and thus, when you look across human experience you can find all kinds of colors on the wall.
Actually, it's best not only to have a dichotomy between fact and taste, but three different categories. Fact and opinion and taste. It's not true that all opinions are equally worthy, but it is to say that an opinion is something that ought to be based on the facts, but is an extension of the facts. Facts, opinions, matters of taste. I think in this case, Dr. Greene is exactly right when he says that our culture is endangered when people don't make the distinction between matters of fact and matters of opinion or matters of taste.
But there's something that should warn us here. The headline in the article cites the professor saying, "Factual information is not the right yardstick for religion." Well, that's very interesting. It's not too often that The Guardian interviews a specialist on string theory from Columbia University about theology, but that's what happens here and very quickly we need to turn to this exchange.
In his book, Greene talks about the majesty of religion. He's asked, “What does that mean?” Greene responds, "There's a tendency, certainly among some scientists I know, to judge religion by whether or not it gives us factual information about an objective reality." He says, "That's not the right yardstick."
Now, he goes on to argue that the value of religion rightly understood is that it provides a sense of community, allows us to see our lives within a larger context, it connects us “through ritual to our forebearers." Well, you can go on. He continues saying religion is a deeply valuable part of the human story. Here's the problem. Here you have a professor who says that when it comes to theological truth claims, it is simply a compliment to religion to say, “It doesn't really matter whether these claims are factually right or wrong. Let's just treat them as matters of taste that have had communal meaning.”
But as the week comes to an end, let's just remind ourselves that Christianity stands or falls on whether or not its central truth claims are true, factually true, true in space and time in history. Not true as a matter of opinion. Not true as a matter of communal meaning. Not true as a matter of taste. True as a matter of what Francis Shaffer called “true truth”—factual truth.
Earlier I mentioned 1 Corinthians 15, but let's just remind ourselves of what Paul said in that crucial chapter. He said if Christ is not truly, factually raised from the dead, then we are actually, truly still dead in our trespasses and sins. We're of all people most to be pitied. We're of all people most without hope. But it does make sense that if you think religion is simply a matter of taste rather than a matter of truth, then everything is truly up for grabs, including life at the beginning and the end which explains most of what we've been talking about on The Briefing today.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.