Orthodox America

Contemporary Issues Euthanasia "A Good Death"?   

Archpriest Victor Potapov

Last year in the state of Washington and this year in California, voters defeated measures legalizing euthanasia.   It would be wrong, however, to imagine this signals the demise of the Right-to-Die movement which sponsored these initiatives.   Polls show persistent-although still conditional-support for what amounts to physician-assisted suicide.  Like abortion, euthanasia is a moral issue which has entered the public square for a debate whose "resolution" will ultimately be determined at the ballot box and in the courts.

Just prior to the Democratic convention, prominent Pro-Life advocates ran a full-page appeal in The New York Times, which credited the American public with being "capable of serious public moral reflection."  It is an arguable statement.  Anyone who saw Hollywood's emotionally persuasive endorsement of euthanasia in the made-for-TV movie, "Last Wish", aired a few months ago, has already experienced the power of media manipulation on this issue. Weighing in on the same side are proponents of the new "global thinking", an ideology which favors utilitarianism as the prime criterion for legislating morality and which is rapidly being integrated into the curricula of our schools. It is an unequal debate.  Under such pressure, the shift in public opinion is predictable.  As Orthodox Christians, it is imperative that we know precisely where we stand on these issues-and why-lest we ourselves inadvertently succumb to these powers of persuasion with their subtle appeal to "compassion," "mercy", and "reasonableness".

In many ways euthanasia has come to the fore as an extension of the abortion debate, but whereas we know that human life begins at conception, just when its earthly sojourn ends-or should end-is less clear in those increasing cases involving medical intervention. The rhetoric of the debate also begs clarification; we must understand the difference between "active" and "passive" euthanasia, between extraordinary or "heroic" measures and ordinary means; we must understand the rationale behind the "quality of life" argument, and how the debate over euthanasia fits into the larger sphere of bioethics.  Because of its multiple complexities and the gravity of this issue, and because it is bound to affect many of us directly, we have decided to print a number of articles on the subject, beginning here with a relevant section from Archpriest Victor Potapov's exposition of the Ten Commandments.


In all societies throughout the history of mankind an extraordinarily important significance has been attached to dying and death.   For our forebears, who lived under the conditions of agricultural societies, death was in the nature of things and was accepted fatalistically.  But with the development of contemporary societies the problem of dying acquired a new meaning:  the achievements of medical science and technology now permit life to be prolonged.  We do not simple live longer; we live much longer than our forebears.  However, in the opinion of many, the additional years often turn out to be not at all the best time of life, but a "slow and steady advance into enemy country."   For some this experience turns out to be unbearable.

In 1990, Americans were shaken by the following event:  Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a retired pathologist, constructed and offered to interested persons a device which journalists christened "the suicide machine."  At the request of a 54 year-old woman who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, he inserted  into one of her veins a syringe connected to this machine.  The patient pressed a button, a solution of potassium chlorate began to enter the vein, and within a few minutes her heart stopped.

In the Netherlands, the sick who experience unbearable sufferings can now ask a physician to help them die.   If several physicians testify to the incurability of the illness, the sick person can receive a fatal injection. Opponents of such a kind of medical assistance point out that when such injections are used to execute the death sentence for criminals in American prisons they are frequently called "cruel and inhuman punishment."

Does a person have the right to end his life with dignity?  Is it necessary to prolong a person's life when it is obvious that he has no chance to lead a "normal life"?  Is it ethical to cut short the life of a hopelessly ill person in order to free him from unbearable torment and suffering?  These and similar questions are very timely in our days, as life expectancy keeps increasing and mankind strives to better the quality of its earthly existence.  Every physician and priest and each person, who to some extent or other has anything to do with the sick and dying, unavoidably will come up against these questions. What is the teaching of the Church concerning euthanasia (a Greek word, meaning "a good death")?

The Orthodox Church teaches that euthanasia is the deliberate cessation of human life, and, as such, must be condemned as murder.  However, the headlong progress of contemporary medical technology and the various means of artificially sustaining life require that theologians make more precise the Church's approach to the problem of euthanasia "and the right of a person to put an end to his life."

Euthanasia is the act of painlessly killing hopelessly ill people. Proponents of euthanasia point out that the use of contemporary medicine and the means of treating the hopelessly ill does not lead to their recovery, but only agonizingly prolongs their dying.  This in turn raises another moral question:  Is it murder not to use the good things of contemporary medicine for prolonging the life of the hope-lessly ill?

The Fathers of the Church teach that death is unnatural for man, because man was created not for death, but for life.  Death, along with suffering and illness, which we talked about in our earlier catechetical discussions, occurs not according to God's will.    Concerning this it says in the Book of Wisdom:  For God made not death: neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living.  For he created all things, that they might have their being. (Wisdom 1:13-14). And in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel we read:  For I desire not the death of  him that dieth, saith the Lord God; wherefore, be converted and live  (Ezekiel 13:32).

According to the   teaching of the Holy Fathers, the meaning of Adam's sin is that man, who was created in the image and likeness of God and infused with breath by His Spirit, when he had appeared on the face of the earth, chose death instead life, evil instead of righteousness.   And so death passed upon all men, for that in him (Adam) all have sinned (Rom. 5:12), says the Apostle Paul.  And having sinned, man brought death also to his children, who shared his nature and life.

Spiritual life for the Christian consists of dying with Christ to sin and the world and of passing with Him through the experience of bodily death in order to be resurrected in the Kingdom of God.    Christians must transfigure their own death in the affirmation of life, meeting the tragedy of death with faith in the Lord and conquering, according to the words of the Apostle Paul, "the last enemy - death". (I Cor. 15:26) by the power of one's faith.

I am the resurrection, and the life:  he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die    (John 11:25-26).

The deeply believing Christian must be ready to accept any death, for his faith in the Resurrection and in the infinite goodness of God are measured by his acceptance of death.  A Christian is called to have  "the remembrance of death,"   that is,  not to forget his mortality, and that the final triumph of light will appear only after the resurrection of the dead.  But preparedness for death does not mean that earthly life loses its value.  On the contrary, it remains the greatest good, and the Christian is called unto the fullness of the present life, in so far as he is able to fill up each moment of this life with the light of Christ's love.

It follows from this patristic presentation about life and death that a Christian is forbidden to participate in the deliberate cessation of the life of others, including also the hopelessly ill.

At the same time that the Church suffers together with people in extreme misfortune, She can by no means change her mission to preserve the sacred gift of life.  The Church approves the use of various medicines and even narcotics to decrease the physical pain of the sufferer.  In instances where it is completely evident that death is inescapable, and the person is spiritually prepared for death by means of confession and communion, the Church blesses that person to die, without the interference of various life-prolonging medical devices and drugs.

The Church tries to instil in the sufferer that his illness is caused by sin-not only his own, but also that of the whole world.  If he bears his infirmity righteously, manfully and patiently, that is, with faith, hope and even joy, then he will become the greatest witness to God's salvation in this world.  Nothing can compare with such patience, for the glorification of God in the midst of suffering and infirmity is the greatest of all offerings which a man can ever make from his life on earth.

All the saints suffered from some kind of bodily infirmity.  And they all-even those who healed others by their prayers-never asked healing for themselves.   And the most obvious example is the example of Jesus Himself. Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh,  teaches the Apostle Peter in his First Epistle,  arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin; that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God  (I Peter 4:1-2).  The Christian, according to the grace given him by the Lord, must spiritually accept participation in the sufferings of Christ.

At the same time that the Church blesses the hopelessly ill person to consciously prepare for death, not resorting to artificial means of supporting life, She decisively parts from those who consider that in all instances it is necessary, no matter what, to prolong the life of the dying by whatever means are available.  In Her prayers "at the parting of the soul from the body," the Church prays God to send to the hopelessly ill "a speedy and painless end," believing that the prolonging of the life of the hopelessly ill enters into conflict with God's plan for that person.

One ought not to generalize about the Church's approach to this question. The problem of maintaining the life of the gravely ill needs an individualized approach - a careful and all-round discussion in each instance with the relatives of the ill person, his physician and spiritual director.  Moreover, this discussion must be accompanied by prayer with the request for God's guidance.

The Church makes a precise differentiation between euthanasia and the decision not to use extraordinary means to maintain life in those instances when a person is hopelessly ill.  The Church affirms the holiness of life, and it is the duty of each Christian in every way possible to protect life as a sacred gift of God.  The sole form of "a good death," from the Church's point of view, is the peaceful acceptance of the end of earthly life, enriched by faith and trust in God and the hope of resurrection in Christ.

(Translated by Daniel Olson from Prikhodskaya Zhizn, parish newsletter of the St. John the Baptist Cathedral, Washington DC, April 1992)