The Wall Street Journal - November 27, 1991
Thirteen Jewish and Christian theologians, philosophers and legal scholars,
under the auspices of the Ramsey Colloquium of the Institute on Religion and
Public Life, have collaborated on a declaration on euthanasia. Here are
We are grateful that the citizens of Washington state have turned back a
measure that would have extended the permission to kill, but we know that this
is not the end of the matter. The American people must now prepare themselves to
meet similar proposals for legally sanctioned euthanasia. Toward that end we
offer this explanation of why euthanasia is contrary to our faith as Jews and
Christians, is based upon grave moral error, does violence to our political
tradition, and undermines the integrity of the medical profession.
In relating to the sick, the suffering, the incompetent, the disabled and the
dying, we must relearn the wisdom that teaches us always to care, never to kill.
Although it may sometimes appear to be an act of compassion, killing is never
caring. The well-organized campaign for legalized euthanasia cruelly exploits
the fear of suffering and the frustration felt when we cannot restore to health
those whom we love. Such fear and frustration is genuine and deeply felt,
especially with respect to the aging. But to deal with suffering by eliminating
those who suffer is an evasion of moral duty and a great wrong.
Deeply embedded in our moral and medical traditions is the distinction
between allowing to die, on the one hand, and killing, on the other. That
distinction is now under attack and must be defended with all the force
available to us.
Medical treatments can be refused or withheld if they are either useless or
excessively burdensome. No one should be subjected to useless treatment; no one
need accept any and all lifesaving treatments, no matter how burdensome.
When we ask if a treatment is useless, the question is: "Will this treatment
be useful for this patient: will it benefit the life he or she has?" When we ask
if a treatment is burdensome, the question is: "Is this treatment excessively
burdensome to the life of this patient?" The question is not whether this life
is useless or burdensome. We can and should allow the dying to die; we must
never intend the death of the living. We may reject a treatment; we must never
reject a life.
Once we cross the boundary between killing and allowing to die, there will be
no turning back. Current proposals would legalize euthanasia only for the
terminally ill. But the logic of the argument -- and its practical consequences
-- will inevitably push us further.
Arguments for euthanasia usually appeal to our supposed right of
self-determination and to the desirability or relieving suffering. If a right to
euthanasia is grounded in self-determination, it cannot reasonably be limited to
the terminally ill. If people have a right to die, why must they wait until they
are actually dying before they are permitted to exercise that right? Similarly,
if the warrant for euthanasia is to relieve suffering, why should we be able to
relieve the suffering only of those who are self-determining and competent to
give their consent? Why not euthanasia for the suffering who can no longer speak
Once we have transgressed and blurred the line between killing and allowing
to die, it will be exceedingly difficult, in logic, law, and practice, to limit
the license to kill. Once the judgment is not about the worth of specific
treatments but about the worth of specific lives, our nursing homes and other
institutions will present us with countless candidates for elimination who would
"be better off dead."
In the face of such danger, we would direct public attention to four sources
of wisdom that can teach us again always to care, never to kill.
As Christians and Jews, we are not authorized to make comparative judgments
about the worth of lives or to cut short the years that God gives to us or
We are to relieve suffering when we can, and to bear with those who suffer,
helping them to bear their suffering, when we cannot. We are never to "solve'
the problem of suffering by eliminating those who suffer. Euthanasia would
inevitably tempt us to abandon those who suffer. This is especially the case
when we permit ourselves to be persuaded that their lives are a burden to us or
to them. We may think we care when we kill, but killing is the rejection of
God's command to care and of his help in caring.
We can, if we wish, renounce many goods or give them into the control of
another. Life, however, is not. simply a "good" that we possess. Our life is our
person. To treat our life as a "thing'' that we can authorize another to
terminate is profoundly dehumanizing. Euthanasia, even when requested by the
competent, attacks the distinctiveness and limitations of being human. Persons
-- ourselves and others -- are not things to be discarded when they are no
longer deemed useful.
We can give our life for another, but we cannot give ultimate authority over
our life to another. To turn one's life into an object that is at the final
disposition of another is to become less than human, while it places the other
in a position of being more than human -- a lord of life and death, a possessor
of the personhood of others.
Human community and the entirety of civilization is premised upon a
relationship of moral claims and duties between persons. Personhood has no
meaning apart from life. If life is a thing that can be renounced or taken at
will, the moral structure of human community, understood as a community of
persons, is shattered. The result is a brave new world in which killing is
defined as caring, life is viewed as the enemy, and death is counted as a
benefit to be bestowed.
"We hold these truths," the founders of our political community declared, and
among the truths that our community has held is that the right to life is
"unalienable." All human beings have an equal right to life bestowed by "Nature
and Nature's God." Government is to respect that right; it does not bestow that
This unalienable right places a clear limit on the power of the state. Except
when government exercises its duty to protect citizens against force and
injustice, or when it punishes evildoers, it may not presume for itself an
authority over human life. To claim that, apart from these exceptions, the state
may authorize the killing even of consenting persons is to give state authority
an ultimacy it has never had in our political tradition. In that tradition it is
recognized that government cannot authorize the alienation of a right it did not
Legalized euthanasia would inevitably require the complicity of physicians.
In a time when the medical profession is subjected to increasing criticism, when
many people feel vulnerable before medical technology and practice, it would be
foolhardy for our society to authorize physicians to kill. Euthanasia is not the
way to respond to legitimate fears about medical technology and practice. It is
unconscionable that the proponents of euthanasia exploit such fears. Such fears
can be met and overcome by strongly reaffirming the distinction between killing
and allowing to die -- by making clear that useless and excessively burdensome
treatment can be refused, while at the same time leaving no doubt that this
society will neither authorize physicians to kill nor look the other way if they
This fourfold wisdom is rejected at our moral peril. By attending to these
sources of wisdom, we can find our way back to an understanding of the limits of
human responsibility, and of the imperative to embrace compassionately those who
suffer from illness and the fears associated with the end of life. Guided by
this wisdom, we will not presume to eliminate a fellow human being, nor need we
fear being abandoned in our suffering The compact of rights, duties, and mutual
trust that makes human community possible depends upon our continuing adherence
to the precept, Always to care, never to kill.
HADLEY ARKES, Amherst College
MATTHEW BERKE, First Things magazine
MIDGE DECTER, Institute on Religion and Public Life
RABBI MARC GELLMAN, Hebrew Union College
ROBERT GEORGE, Princeton University
PASTOR PAUL HINLICKY, Lutheran Forum
RUSSELL HITTINGER, Catholic University of America
THE REV. ROBERT JENSON, St. Olaf College
GILBERT MEILAENDER, Oberlin College
FATHER RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS, Institute on Religion and Public Life
RABBI DAVID NOVAK, University of Virginia
JAMES NUECHTERLEIN, First Things magazine
MAX STACKHOUSE, Andover Newton Theological School