Answering Desmond Tutu’s muddled arguments

Former archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a confused letter promoting euthanasia to the Washington Post on 6 October 2016 https://goo.gl/rFA1VS. We answer it below:

Short answer
Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu is misleading people on what God says on euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Firstly, Tutu claims to support both the Sanctity of Life and assisted suicide. You can’t have it both ways. You have to choose.

Secondly, Tutu says “I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs”, citing the example of Mandela. This muddles assisted suicide with extra-ordinary medical treatment, which existing law and Christian ethics allow him to refuse.

Thirdly, he uses the misleading code word ‘assisted dying’ meaning ‘assisted suicide’. This muddles relieving the pain of dying people with actively killing.

Fourthly, he asks “Why are so many instead forced to endure terrible pain and suffering against their wishes”. Modern pain killers can relieve pain. The ancient Hippocratic and Biblical medical ethic opposes suicide no matter how great the pain.

Fifthly, Tutu claims that suicide is ‘dignity in dying’. But the Bible says that all people have dignity because they are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Archbishop Tutu used this to argue all are equally valuable regardless of colour – and rightly so. It settles the meaning of ‘dignity’ and so prohibits assisted suicide. Desmond Tutu, created in the image of God, is more valuable than he realises.

Detailed answer

Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu is misleading people on what God says on euthanasia and assisted suicide. Responding to his October 2016 letter, I challenged him to radio debate. Former archbishop Demond Tutu muddles the issues on assisted suicide in letter to the Washington Post on 6 October 2016 https://goo.gl/rFA1VS, which was reported as front page headline on the Sunday Times 9 October. Here are five reasons Tutu is wrong and is misleading people on the Word of God and medicine. If a financial adviser misleads his clients, he is found guilty of fraud and is punished, but if a religious leader misleads his followers, he is protected by religious freedom. Tutu’s message on assisted suicide is the religious equivalent of fraud – and it matters more than financial fraud because eternal issues are at stake. If you claim to represent God, you cannot just make up your own views following the latest overseas political fad. Let him try defend this from scripture in radio debate. Let the listeners decide. Tutu’s letter doesn’t quote a single Bible verse.

* Firstly, Tutu claims to support both the Sanctity of Life and assisted suicide. You can’t have it both ways. You have to choose. The Christian view of the Sanctity of Human Life as taught in the Bible forbids the killing of human beings (Exodus 20:13) https://goo.gl/Rlrqk0 (not animals), with certain exceptions such as individuals in self-defence or by the state by the police, in capital punishment or in war. Animal life is not sacred. Human life is. Tutu has previously supported abortion (killing of unborn babies) and so his position on euthanasia is not surprising. The Bible and science both teach unborn babies are human beings (https://goo.gl/t01UKX). In the same way, Tutu misleads people on the obvious teaching of the Bible on homosexuality (e.g. Romans 1:26-27) https://goo.gl/hXOedj. Tutu contradicts the Bible on these three big issues. Similarly confusing, Judge Fabricius last year in his April 2015 Stransham-Ford judgement claimed to support ‘the Sanctity of the Quality of life’. Actually, there is no such thing. Human life is sacred. Quality of life is not.

* Secondly, Tutu says “I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs.” This muddles assisted suicide with extra-ordinary medical treatment. He doesn’t have to be kept alive at all costs. Existing law and Christian ethics allow him to refuse extra-ordinary medical treatment. No legal change is needed.

* Thirdly, he uses the misleading code word ‘assisted dying’ meaning ‘assisted suicide’ or ‘euthanasia’. The term muddles palliative care (relieving the pain of the sick) with actively killing them. In the same way ‘Termination of pregnancy’ is a misleading code word for killing of the unborn.

* Fourthly, he asks “Why are so many instead forced to endure terrible pain and suffering against their wishes”. Actually, thankfully, modern pain killers can relieve pain. Nevertheless, the ancient Hippocratic https://goo.gl/BQaBwT and Biblical medical ethic opposes suicide no matter how great the pain. In the Bible (1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1 https://goo.gl/Twtgzv and https://goo.gl/zrqYht), King Saul committed suicide by falling on his sword to escape torture by enemies. While half dead, and with no hope of recovery, he asked a friendly soldier to finish him off. The solider was executed for murder. Similarly in South African history, apartheid ‘Dr Death’ Wouter Basson was found guilty of giving soliders suicide capsules to use if they were caught by enemies https://goo.gl/tG1svo

* Fifthly, Tutu claims that suicide is ‘dignity in dying’. That ironically was the view of Abimelech in the Bible who asked his armour bearer to run him through after he was injured by a woman. He felt it was more dignified to be killed by a man than a woman. https://goo.gl/oa27TS The story shows the subjectivity of such interpretation of ‘dignity’.

But the Bible says that all people have dignity because they are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) https://goo.gl/pR3pj9. This means that our lives have inherent value and dignity far beyond our personal self-worth or value to others. Why are the coins in your wallet worth more than other bits of metal? Answer because of the image the government has put on them. You are not allowed to melt them down. That is defacing currency. Likewise all human life ultimately belongs to God. Archbishop Tutu has frequently quoted this scripture against racism – saying all people are equally valuable regardless of colour – and rightly so. This same scripture also settles the meaning of ‘dignity’ and so prohibits assisted suicide and euthanasia. Actually, Desmond Tutu, created in the image of God is more valuable than he realises.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu says his comments on assisted suicide were related to his feelings on the treatment of Nelson Mandela https://goo.gl/w66wY8. Again this muddles the issues, and maybe the Archbishop doesn’t understand the difference. Nelson Mandela was kept alive for around a year longer than he would have lived, using extra-ordinary medical care (life support). Such treatment is meant to help otherwise healthy people, for a short time, example after a temporary health setback such as an accident. It is not meant to prolong the lives of terminally ill people, and both sides of the euthanasia/assisted suicide debate agree this was a mistake in the case of Mandela https://goo.gl/YwDI9t. It is and always has been legal to refuse extra-ordinary medical care and let someone die naturally. This is completely different to assisted suicide/euthanasia, where others actively kill or help a person commit suicide. It is also completely different to denial of ‘ordinary medical care’ such as food, clothing, warmth and medication that can be given at home.

If Archbishop Tutu wants to avoid prolonging his life like Mandela, he should write a ‘durable power of attorney for health care’, giving someone he trusts and understands his wishes, the right to make medical decisions for him if he is incapacitated. For the rest of us, such a fate is not much of a risk, since such care is expensive and hospitals need life support equipment to help people in emergencies.

Philip Rosenthal