A new study finds around half of Lutheran ministers in Finland have a positive attitude towards euthanasia – a stark contrast to the official position of the church which forbids assisted suicide.
PhD researcher Miia Kontro from the University of Eastern Finland reached out to more than 2000 Lutheran clergy around the country and asked them to fill in a questionnaire about their feelings towards euthanasia.
About half of those who responded said they had a positive attitude towards it, while 20% said they’d be in favour if it was offered in the Finnish healthcare system.
“I was very surprised because the church says no to euthanasia, and all the main religions do” says Kontro.
“I knew that something like 50% of Lutheran pastors for example are okay with gay marriage, but I was still surprised that the same amount would accept euthanasia” she tells News Now Finland.
Finnish attitudes towards assisted suicide
Attitudes in Finland towards euthanasia vary, in particular when it comes to the public and medical professionals.
Around 85% of the public support euthanasia; while 74% of nurses and 50% of doctors support euthanasia according to various polls.
In November 2016 a cross-party group of MPs launched a citizen’s initiative bid to legalise euthanasia in Finland. The petition crossed the required 50,000 signature limit within a few months and went forward for discussion by parliament’s Social Affairs and Health Committee, but was ultimately rejected by MPs in May 2018.
Miia Kontro says there is a lot of research among doctors and nurses about their attitudes towards euthanasia, but not among clergy – striking in a culture where the church has a certain ‘monopoly’ on death and dying.
“For many hundreds of years the church has been the one that talked about death, and even all the graveyards are the property of the church. When you die, almost everyone has the funeral in the church. And when people are in hospital and dying, very often the pastor comes there and that’s why the church is the experts about death” she explains.
When would Lutheran pastors approve euthanasia?
The probability of an eventual death is a factor which makes ministers more inclined to approve of euthanasia – but the suffering of the patient is considered a subjective experience and not strong enough on its own to be considered grounds for assisted suicide.
The research finds the same is true regarding the person’s prognosis for death – literally, how much longer they’ve got left to live.
Two out of five pastors would approve of euthanasia for a person who is very likely to die in the coming days; whereas only one in five approves of assisted suicide for someone who is in pain, but has a remaining life expectancy of a year, or less.
“Many pastors wrote to me and said that miracles, religious miracles, could happen, and that a patient could have some kind of experience like that if they’ve still got one year left to live. The pastors believe that God makes miracles happen” says Miia Kontro.
According to the research 61% percent of pastors said they believe life is in the hands of God, and man should not meddle with how and when that life ends. However, only 13% of pastors believe that euthanasia will lead to consequences in the afterlife.
Male pastors considered euthanasia to be against God’s will more frequently than female pastors.
Becoming a burden to family
One of the most contentious debates around euthanasia and end-of-life experiences for terminally ill patients is what’s known as a “slippery slope” argument.
Some people, particularly in the clergy, worry that individuals with a terminal illness will be concerned about becoming too old, too ill, or too much of a burden for their families if they have a long-term decline in health towards death.
Kontro said this was a factor brought up too by Finnish Lutheran pastors, who also considered how it might affect them directly.
“It is noteworthy that when this question becomes personal, more than one third of pastors would approve of their own euthanasia if they were suffering from unbearable pain” says Miia Kontro.
“Moreover, 8% of pastors who oppose euthanasia for others would allow it for themselves.”