What’s the Value of Your Life if You’re Elderly?This month is dedicated to focusing on the Sanctity of Human Life (SOHL), with January 19th being the “Sanctify of Human Life” day specifically set aside for churches to talk about this issue. When we think of Sanctity of Human Life we typically think of protecting the life of the unborn, and rightly so, but it’s so much more than that. When we take a stand for the Sanctity of Human Life, we’re taking a stand on the value of life for every human being—beginning at conception and ending with natural death. That’s why we’d like to share with you about the other end of the spectrum that is not usually thought about or talked about in the Sanctity of Human Life debate, but it most definitely should be. We want to talk to you about how the Sanctity of Human Life pertains to the elderly in our nation.
Let me ask you… What do you call it when someone intentionally kills another person? Murder, right? Now, what if it is done in the name of ending that person’s “pain & suffering,?” Is it something different? Some (and that number is growing) would say it is a “mercy killing.” Consider these few examples from this past year…
Last March this news story made the headlines: “Probation for 86 year-old who admitted ‘mercy killing’ of ailing elderly wife” – the man shot his 81 year-old wife in their home because he says his ailing wife “begged him to.” He was originally charged with first degree murder, but after hearing his story, a plea agreement was reached to plead guilty to manslaughter. This charge can lead to 12 years in prison, but he received just 2 years probation. Why? Because this was considered a “mercy killing;” and justification given for the ruling was described as one that “tempers justice with mercy” because the wife was old and suffering from a number of ailments.
Think this is an isolated case? Not at all…here’s another headline—interestingly also from AZ— “Woman dead in second possible Sun City mercy killing in a year.” A 73 year-old woman was shot by her husband. The reason? He claimed she was ill and in his words, “he couldn’t handle her anymore.” Again, the media labels it as a “mercy killing.”
The last example is one from PA: “Elderly man kills wife, self in PA hospice unit in apparent ‘mercy killing’.” Here again is another article about a man who killed his 83 year-old wife—who authorities believe shot her—because he couldn’t bear to see her suffering anymore. Then he turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. They are calling it a “mercy killing.” The hospital’s VP went so far to call it a “love story” believing that the man killed his wife to end her suffering and killed himself because he couldn’t live without her. We won’t ever know the true story since he left no note behind and told no one of his intentions, but I guess this is a more comforting way to think about it.
These are just a sampling of what is termed “mercy killings” happening around the U.S. and they beg the question, Is it okay to kill another person as long as it is done in love, compassion and mercy? Another question we could ask is, Is it okay to kill another person if that person is terminally ill? How about permanently disabled? How about elderly with little expectancy of life left? Or, if their “quality of life” is not what it used to be? How about just unhappy and tired of living? What if the person even says they want to die? Is it okay for someone—maybe a loved one, maybe a doctor—to kill them? Or, should we find it acceptable for them to kill themselves? For some people, these are tough questions to answer, but I hope they won’t be for you.
We started off talking about “mercy killings” and the reason is because we fear this is a foreshadowing of what’s ahead. Let me provide you with a little history. First “mercy killing” is defined as a person acting in a way to free another from suffering by having been directly involved in taking their life. This isn’t a new idea by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, you can find references to it dating back the fifth century B.C. where pagan doctors frequently performed abortions and “mercy killings.” Fortunately, the Hippocratic Oath which was written during this time began to change how people viewed the value of life. The oath prohibited doctors from giving deadly drugs in order to end someone’s life, and prohibited them from helping someone to die. Instead their oath was to be to healing only—do no harm.
Throughout the ages and especially with the rise of Christianity in the first century the practice of euthanasia became quite unacceptable and generally was opposed. Of course there were always people who would rise up and challenge the opposition to euthanasia but it didn’t gain any steam until the early 19th century. Slowly public support for euthanasia grew, especially during the Great Depression when people were feeling very desperate and could barely feed their families, and it seemed that it was just a matter of time before it became legal.
But, in the 20th century news of what the Nazi’s did – euthanizing mental patients and handicapped children – spread in the U.S. and thoughts of legalizing it got tabled until the 70’s when the views of a patient’s right to die began to change. Eight states in 1977 enacted “Right to Die” bills – allowing patients to withdraw from life-sustaining medical treatment when death was believed to be imminent. Over the next decade or so, upon hearing many debates and conversations about the right to die, public opinion was growing more amenable to euthanasia. In fact, by the 90’s a poll showed that more than half of Americans were in favor of physician assisted death! This is about the time when Dr. Kevorkian became so prominent as he boasted of the number of people he helped commit suicide. You might even remember when he showed a videotape of him helping a man suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease kill himself by lethal injection (he was later convicted for this and sent to prison!)
In 1997, we had our first state—Oregon—enact a “Death with Dignity” act allowing for physician-assisted suicide (meaning they can provide assistance in one’s death but should not have direct involvement, e.g. providing prescription drugs that would lead to death). Following their lead some years later Washington, Vermont, Montanta passed their own “Death with Dignity” law, and along the way many proposals have gone before the people in other states to pass similar acts, but so far none others have passed… Yet. Here’s where we’re seeing the trend moving today.
So what is the problem with physician-assisted suicide or with euthanasia? Why should we be concerned about this? Because we know as Christians that life is precious and has value. We know that we are created in God’s own image and God does not look favorably on anyone who destroys the temple He created, whether it’s by your own hand or someone else’s. In Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 it says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die” and those times are determined by God. Job says of God, “Man’s days are determined; You have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed.” (Job 14:5). When we start making decisions about when a person should die, we are acting as gods, we’re taking on a responsibility that is not ours.
BUT, grandma is suffering, mom doesn’t have a good quality of life now, grandpa doesn’t want to live anymore… These are things we tell ourselves over and over to give us permission to determine when a person should die. And, there may be truth to this. Did you know that people over the age of 60 are 6x more likely than the rest of the population to commit suicide? Every 30 minutes an elderly person commits suicide. Two-thirds of them are in relatively good physical condition, but the majority of them are severely depressed. They have no hope and they are told or treated as if they are a burden to the family or to society. They’ve lost their hope and see no other solution.
During a recent debate and one scholar argued that the elderly should not be given expensive medical treatments because it causes the Medicaid program to shrink and pulls resources away from younger, more needy individuals. He went on to say that they it doesn’t make rational sense to pour money in the dying—that we need to evaluate the situation by “looking at the data.” In other words, if a person doesn’t have many years left and if it’s deemed that the particular treatment won’t make a significant difference in the quality of life, then the money should be spent elsewhere. This is the kind of thinking that leads the elderly to believe they have no more value left in this world. And, this leads to others agreeing with physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia. The message is that the elderly have less worth than someone younger and that they’re a great burden on others, which no one wants to be.
Thankfully, there is hope and there are things we can do to help. Consider what William Wood, clinical director of the Winship Cancer Center at Emory University in Atlanta, said (published in Time, April 15, 1996, p. 82.): If we treat their depression and we treat their pain, I’ve never had a patient who wanted to die.
Linda Emanuel, director of the American Medical Association’s Institute on Ethics wrote: (published in “The New Pro-Lifers,” The New York Times Magazine, July 21, 1996.): I simply have never seen a case nor heard of a colleague’s case where it (physician-assisted suicide) was necessary. If there is such a request, it is always dropped when quality care is rendered.
And, one more… Kathleen Foley, chief of pain service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City said in a testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution (Washington D.C., April, 1996.): In my clinical practice, I have been asked by suffering patients to aid them in death because of severe pain. I have had the opportunity to see these requests for aid in death fade with adequate pain control, psychological support, provision of family support, and with the promise that their symptoms would be controlled throughout the dying process.
Christina Odone who is a passionate opponent to physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia says this, “Life is not only sacred, but takes on meaning when it is cared for, cherished and loved.”
There are things we can do to care for our elderly, there is hope we can offer:
Behind the aged face are memories of family and friends. Wrinkles stand for earnest times of prayer, loving care, and decades of useful work. The beauty is no longer the skin-deep charm of youth, but the time-honored loveliness of a life well-lived.
However, the elderly are not always appreciated. Unscrupulous people force them to live in conditions that are undesirable. One politician has said “they should die and get out of the way.” Others suggest that they are an unnecessary burden. As Christians, we must resist this trend and work to reverse it. After all, “They are God’s Jewels…His precious jewels, and we are fortunate and blessed the He has entrusted them to us.” Herb (The Sonshine Society) Too many of these precious people feel rejected and abandoned. Let’s care for the aged and love them in Jesus’ Name. May God use us to encourage those who pray, “Do not cast me off in time of old age…”
– Suzanne Dubois and Kay Owen-Larson
Please contact Crossroads Ministries for more information on how you, your church or organization can get involved with nursing home ministry. 719-635-5767 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Upcoming Volunteer Training Class: January 25, 2014 from 9-12:30 in Room 107 of Woodmen Valley Chapel, 290 E. Woodmen Rd, Colorado Springs, CO. Please call 719-635-5767 to reserve your seat.
We train individuals, families, churches and groups to befriend this forgotten generation.