Religious Attitudes to the Elderly and Death

GCSE Religious Attitudes to the Elderly and Death

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  • Created by: Mel
  • Created on: 21-05-12 10:34


Euthanasia is inducing a painless death with compassion, to ease suffering. The word euthanasia comes from the Greek meaning 'Good Death'.

Some Christians believe it is 'mercy killing' while others see it as taking life. Euthanasia is illegal in the UK and Ireland. Some people write living wills which have details about what they want if they are left incapacitated, in a coma or unable to express their wishes themselves, however this is not legally recognized in the UK.

Doctors take a Hippocratic Oath which means they agree above everything that they must protect life at all costs as a doctor.

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Types and Methods of Euthanasia

Types of Euthanasia

  • Voluntary euthanasia – When a terminally ill patient requests for a doctor or friend to help them die peacefully and with dignity (‘mercy killing’ or ‘assisted suicide’)
  • Involuntary euthanasia – When a patient’s life is ended because it is felt that, to keep them alive is to make them suffer, but the patient has not given their consent to the decision 
  • Non-voluntary euthanasia - Occurs when a patient is euthanized in a situation where they are unable to give consent, e.g. patient might be in a persistent vegetative state (PVS)

Methods of Euthanasia

  • Passive Euthanasia – Allowing a terminally or incurably ill person to die by withdrawing or withholding medical treatment that would only prolong the suffering and have no real benefit.
  • Active Euthanasia – The ending of a life by a deliberate action, such as by giving a patient a fatal injection.
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Arguments For Euthanasia

  • Offer 'death with dignity' to those suffering a painful terminal illness
  • May help others who are afraid of death to know that their going need not to be traumatic and painful
  • May ease the pain and worry of relatives who have to watch a long, drawn out death
  • Some argue that their life belongs to them; they should have the right to say when and how they should die
  • Euthanasia seems to be righting the imbalance brought about by expensive medical technologies which seem to prolong life beyond what might be considered a natural span
  • The every-increasing ranks of very elderly sick people, with their drain on scarce medical resources that could be better used on the young, create a problem for which euthanasia would provide a quick and easy solution
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Arguments Against Euthanasia

  • Just as abortion is an attack on life in its earliest moments, euthanasia attacks life in its last moments, in the long-run, both devalue human life
  • The pro-euthanasia argument appeals powerfully to the emotions ('who can watch this poor man suffer and not want to end his life peacefully') but emotions are fickle and can be manipulated to devious means; there are not substitute for reason
  • Christians believe that we should be good stewards of life God has given us
  • Christians believe that unavoidable suffering is not useless; joined to Christ's own suffering it can have the same effect of redeeming the world
  • In a society where euthanasia is accepted, families may, in various ways, pressure their sick/elderly relatives into taking that option so that the family are spared expense and trouble; a terminally ill person, already feeling fragile emotionally, may feel that euthanasia is their 'duty'
  • Hospices provide the terminally ill with the warm environment for a 'death with dignity'; patients' spiritual, emotional and physical needs are all attended to; pain-control techniques (palliative care) are incredibly advanced
  • Doctors and nurses are meant to act always to uphold life; legalising euthanasia makes them into legal killers
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Christian Beliefs on Euthanasia

Christianity teaches that all life comes from God:

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 

God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ – Genesis 1:26-28

The bible also teaches that life is sacred: 

Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. - 1 Corinthians 6:19 

For this reason Christians believe that it would be wrong to take life:

You shall not murder. - Exodus 20:13

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A hospice is a place which people go to die with dignity. The first was set up by Christian nuns in 1900 in Ireland. There are about 100 hospices in the UK. Many of them have a Christian basis and believe they are an alternative to euthanasia. They are not funded by the government but are paid for by fundraising, donations and money left in wills.

The purpose of hospices is to care and support patients and their families and friends. The three main aims of hospice care is to:

  • Relieve pain
  • Help patients, friends and relatives face up to death
  • Care for their emotional needs and help them come to terms with their sickness
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Nurture or Therapy?

Nurture - What you need (e.g. food, water, shelter, care) 

Therapy - Treatment to try to make you better 

Is it a treatment to give a PVS patient nutrition and hydration? 

Up until recently, the law tended to say 'no'. A drip feed for fluid and nutrients is a basic nurture. However, one famous case involving a young PVS patient called Tony Bland caused law Lords to see nutrition and hydration as a therapy, rather than a treatment. His life support apparatus was withdrawn. 

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Ordinary or Extraordinary?

Ordinary means of treatment are those tried and trusted therapies (drugs, surgeries, etc.) which would normally be used in the treatment of the particular illness.

Extraordinary means of treatment typically promise little long-term pay-off or are less tried and tested procedures. 

Catholic Teaching states that you should try ordinary means. Extraordinary means are optional.

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Treatment of the Elderly Key Theology

In the Torah, we are 'made in God's image', which means that everyone, including the elderly have intrinsic value and sanctity of life. 

CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church) - According to the CCC, the elderly who are examples of lives that are diminished or weakened and they should be respected. 

Proverbs - In the proverbs, the elderly are seen as wise and upright, which means they should be listened to. 

1 Timothy - According to St. Paul, the elderly should not be neglected since this would be lack of care for relatives, making you 'worse than an unbeliever'.

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Life, Death and Beyond


e.g. Hinduism 

  • Cycle of creation, preservation and destruction 
  • Cycle of successive lives (samsara) 
  • Reincarnation 
  • Karma - affects future lives and existences 
  • Pantheistic tendency (belief that Creation is part of and an extension of God) 


e.g. Abrahamic faiths 

  • Creation is a linear narrative 
  • God as Creator 
  • Continued existence of the soul and transformed physical existence after death 
  • Death and Judgement - Muslims believe there will be a day of judgement when all humans will be divided between the eternal destinations of paradise and hell
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Ageism, also called age discrimination is stereotyping of and discrimination against individuals or groups because of their age. 

In theory, a person of any age can suffer this. In practice, it typically affects those who are considered 'old' or 'elderly'. 

As it says in the Gospel of Matthew, 'Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgements you give are the judgements you will get, and the standard you use will be the standard used for you.'

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S S S Q O L V I N E P A N T O E 

Sovereignty Stewardship, Sanctity, Quality Of Life, Voluntary Involuntary, Passive Active, Nurture Therapy, Ordinary Extraordinary

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Example Question and Answer

Hospices care for the dying and support their families. Explain religious attitudes towards hospices.

1.    Care for the dying is a work of mercy. The Gospel parable includes ‘I was sick and you visited me…’ (Last Judgement). In refusing to ‘fast-forward’ to death (e.g. by assisted suicide), Christians honor God’s sovereignty over life. Respect for sanctity of life is shown in the care for the whole person, attending to physical and personal needs. Spiritual preparation for death is important, and hospices seek to keep a dying person conscious and as comfortable as possible so that they can ‘take stock’ and, for example, be reconciled with estranged family members.

2.    Religions welcome the work of hospices because they uphold quality of life without sacrificing sanctity of life. In helping the whole person as they are dying (rather than helping them to die), hospieces respect the religious belief that God is sovereign and that humans should be stewards of life, even in its last moments. Reconciliation with God and with neighbor is essential in Christian life; hospices allow access to spiritual care and to family involvement (with the chance to mend broken relationships). A person’s family may also ‘honor their parents’ (Decalogue) and ‘care for relatives’ (1 Timothy).

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