Life after Life ¦ Christianity and Euthanasia ¦ Reverend Death

Morphine I finally got round to watching ‘Reverend Death’, Jon Ronson’s documentary about George Exoo, a Unitarian minister who has performed around 100 ‘assisted suicides’, mainly for those who have been turned down by other organisations practising legally in places/states where it is carefully controlled because they do not have terminal illnesses.

Most of the people he seemed to help were suffering depression, or from ME. The film followed him ‘helping’ one woman who had chronic fatigue and ‘couldn’t go on’, though half way through the first attempt she started buttering a bagel, and announced her house-mate was due back any minute. This sent the guy packing quick-sharp: what he is doing is clearly illegal, and this was taken up in the film as the FBI chased him for extradition to Ireland to face charges of assisting a woman in Dublin to commit suicide.

It is possible to see Exoo as a very prolific serial killer akin to Harold Shipman – a British doctor who ended the lives of perhaps 215 people, most of whom were nearing the end of their lives too. Certainly, it seemed he got some sort of thrill out of ‘fulfilling his calling’ – which is precisely how Exoo saw things.

One thing he would do for all his clients (‘because’, as he said many times in almost Pythonesque comic style, ‘you’ve not done this before’) is give them a copy of ‘Life After Life‘ – a video detailing the near-death experiences of a bunch of characters (some of whose stories didn’t quite seem to hold up).

Exoo’s reasoning is that ‘death is a great adventure to a wonderful place’. And this is where things get interesting. Because if, as Christians or otherwise, we really believe in some after-life, then should we be critical of Exoo, or of euthenasia at all? (He claims that Jesus practised some sort of suicide, which Stanley Hauerwas refuted, before being able to come up with any proof text to show God didn’t approve of suicide.)

I was watching the programme with someone I am close to, who trained as a nurse. She mentioned that in practice, in hospices and elsewhere, euthanasia is pretty common.

She then revealed that as she had watched her father lie dying of cancer in the 60’s, his GP had passed her a suitable amount of morphine and told her to ‘stop his pain.’ She thought about it for a very long time, and then did gradually increase his dose to relieve his pain, knowing that this would kill him.

I personally think this was an incredibly brave and humane thing to do. I don’t think it excuses Exoo, or his associate who does the same for a $7000 fee (Exoo takes no money) but I do think if we are to state that we believe in an after life, we need to do so in an active sense, by which I mean making sure that we fully value this life, and don’t simply cheapen it as a blip before the ‘real’ version begins, while permitting people the option to humanely end life at an appropriate moment in a dignified manner.


One response to “Life after Life ¦ Christianity and Euthanasia ¦ Reverend Death”

  1. Dana Ames

    This is a very difficult issue. Except for my father, neither I nor my loved ones have been in this situation, and I was studying in Europe nearly the whole 14 months my dad was ill and dying with cancer.
    I think there is still a difference between giving enough morphine to dull pain, with death as a byproduct of that, and giving enough morphine to purposefully induce death. I don’t think there’s any more dignity in “euthanasia” than in any other way of dying.
    Death is an enemy Jesus had to defeat, which he did by entering into it. Classic Christianity’s view of the “entering into it” part is enough theology for me to see that we don’t have to struggle to hold onto life by “heroic” means, and that we don’t have to be afraid of death. But classic Christianity’s view of death as an enemy is also enough theology to give me great pause about calling any purposeful killing of a human being “humane”.
    Yes, fully valuing life demands valuing the reality of *all* of it before the grave as well. Even what makes us uncomfortable. There’s a long line of wiser people than I who have found value in pain they couldn’t avoid, and I think those voices need to be heard too.
    Guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.