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Really Most Sincerely Dead

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on February 4, 2012

Killing weeds, killing people—what’s the difference?

Bioethicists seeking to justify harvesting vital organs before donors are “technically” dead have written an analysis entitled “What makes killing wrong?” Published January 19 in the Journal of Medical Ethics, their article states, “If killing were wrong just because it is causing death or the loss of life, then the same principle would apply with the same strength to pulling weeds out of a garden. If it is not immoral to weed a garden, then life as such cannot really be sacred, and killing as such cannot be morally wrong” (emphasis ours).

Bioethicists Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Franklin Miller claim, “Killing by itself is not morally wrong, although it is still morally wrong to cause total disability.” They acknowledge, “Every major religious tradition and every major moral theory includes some rule like ‘Don’t kill.’” However, using situational ethics, they conclude that since being irreversibly totally disabled or unconscious is just as bad as being dead, killing such a person by removing vital organs does him no harm and is therefore not immoral. (They define total disability as having no control over anything in one’s mind or body, distinguishing this state of chaotic mental activity from “brain death.”) To those who would suggest killing such a person “violates God’s commandment” they respond, “Why would God forbid us (or have any reason to forbid us) to do something that does not make [the patient] worse off? Similarly, secular theorists might claim that life has sanctity or intrinsic value, but why is life valuable in this extreme case when it includes no ability (or pleasure)?”1

Secular theorists might claim that life has sanctity or intrinsic value, but why is life valuable in this extreme case when it includes no ability (or pleasure)?

“The established legal and ethical prerequisite for vital organ donation is known as ‘the dead donor rule’: vital organs, such as the heart, both lungs and both kidneys, cannot legitimately be procured from a donor unless the donor is already dead. The dead donor rule fundamentally reflects the application of the norm that doctors must not kill,” the authors write, adding, “In actual practice, however, donors of vital organs are not dead—or not known to be dead—at the time when organs are procured.”

The problem is, if life support is withdrawn from a patient—and the decision to do this for patients not “brain dead” opens up another controversial area in morality and ethics that these authors do not address or even acknowledge—the heart is expected to stop beating. Minutes after the heart stops, organs are harvested for transplantation without instituting CPR or heroic measures to ensure the heart cannot be made to beat again. The authors say such a patient is not truly dead. They assrt, “The criterion of irreversibility has not been satisfied; hence, these patients are not known to be dead at the time of organ procurement.” For the record, incidentally, many bioethicists assert such a patient is really dead. These authors claim such positions are “dubious,” only “redefining death, using neurological criteria for death and fudging the requirement of irreversibility.”2

The authors claim the only thing morally wrong about killing is causing “loss of all remaining abilities.”3 Therefore, they write, “It is not even . . . morally wrong to kill patients who are universally and irreversibly disabled, because they have no abilities to lose.”4 Responding to objections that their ethical position could endanger people who have fewer abilities than others, the authors maintain “the value of equality and justice overrides any difference in the value of lives and makes it morally wrong to treat people differently even if they have different abilities.”5

One could write a book exploring the logical implications of the ideas presented by these bioethicists, but here we’ll focus on just two. Although the writers “prefer our moral theories to be independent of religion,”6 without the standards established by God as our Creator, all moral assessments are merely man’s opinions. Evolutionists may debate about the origin of the conscience and social behavior, and humanist philosophers debate moral issues, but apart from a source of truth from someone greater than man, there is no reason any person’s moral judgments are more valid than another’s. God’s account of Creation recorded in the Bible is consistent with what we see in the physical world and validates His ownership of humanity and His right to set our standards.

These authors declare their system of ethics better than those “dubious” approaches presently used by medical professionals they claim are “fudging,” but their declaration is their opinion. And they believe the “value of equality and justice” will prevent their system from its logical extension to wreak havoc on the lives of people with less “ability.” Yet by denying the validity of biblical authority, even this assertion is arbitrary and changeable at the whim of man. Who decides the “value of equality and justice”? Who defines “justice”? Or even “equality”?

God’s standards for right and wrong never change.

God’s standards for right and wrong never change. God made man in His image. Therefore all human beings are of equal value in God’s sight. This biblical idea is expressed in our Declaration of Independence, which states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” God is the source of true morality and true sanctity of human life.

Equating human life to weeds is an absurd logical fallacy inconsistent with the plain reading of Scripture. The Bible uses the word nephesh in reference to the life of humans and animals but never plants. Plants were given for food in the perfectly good world God created. Pulling a weed or eating a potato doesn’t cause death of any sort of life in a moral sense and should never be used as an argument to minimize the significance of death. Death did not enter the world until after Adam sinned. Biologically, a red blood cell and a dandelion can be considered alive, but that designation represents an entirely different use of the word life. With their “living weeds argument” the authors are stooping to the logical fallacy of equivocation to make their case, building on two completely different uses of the word life.

Since the authors have rejected the authority of the Word of God, they refuse to see that human life is special—and even that animal life is different from plant life. Therefore, they absurdly posit humans with vegetables as if there were no difference. Even most others that reject God's Word would not make such a comparison!

Notwithstanding the United Nations position on Mother Earth’s rights, human life is special. Scripture reveals God created human beings in His image. God explained in Genesis 9:6 His reason for prohibiting murder was because He made man in His image. God commands us not to murder (Exodus 20:13) and to defend the “speechless . . . who are appointed to die” (Proverbs 31:8–9). Having just recognized Sanctity of Life Sunday in many of our churches, we need to remember the way to wrestle with tough decisions is to keep our feet firmly grounded in God’s Word. The lives of the unborn, the lives of human embryos in laboratories, the lives of the weak and the helpless—all have value because God made human beings in His image.

Medical professionals grapple with tough life-and-death decisions. We trust our physicians with our lives, and we trust them with our deaths. They are equipped to help families with end-of-life decisions. But those decisions cannot be settled by arbitrarily deciding killing shouldn’t bother us because it’s okay to weed our gardens.

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  1. Sinnott-Armstrong, W. and F. Miller. 2012. “What Makes Killing Wrong?” Journal of Medical Ethics. DOI: 10.1136/medethics-2011-100351.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.


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