The Devil’s Mercy: Euthanasia, Social Darwinism and Human Worth

Not long ago, I was listening to Michael Enwright’s CBC Radio program The Sunday Edition.1 Enwright and two palliative-care doctors were discussing how end-of-life care in Canada is changing in response to the recent legalization of euthanasia—often referred to now as “physician-assisted death.”

Some doctors favour it. Others don’t, of course. One of Enwright’s guests said that, among her colleagues, many did not want the authority to euthanize a patient—yet still wanted the right to be able to choose assisted death for themselves!

This is the crux of the matter, isn’t it?

I suspect most Canadians are sympathetic toward individuals who—facing extreme physical torment—plead for the release of death. But that doesn’t mean we covet the role of executioner. Even doctors, generally, are reluctant to pull the trigger. Or at least, they don’t want to make the decision.

But who should make the decision?

Who lives? Who dies? How much suffering is too much? And whose suffering are we talking about? How certain are we that, from here on in, euthanasia will be visited only upon competent and consenting adults?

A while back, British atheist Richard Dawkins found himself at the centre of a firestorm for comments he made on social media. In response to a question on his Twitter feed, Dawkins had stated his opinion that a fetus with Down Syndrome ought to be aborted—and that, in fact, it would be “immoral” to do otherwise.2

He later blamed Twitter’s 144-word limitation for the uproar, saying that he didn’t have enough space to completely explain his viewpoint. Fair enough. Still, I did not find his blunt remark on Twitter at all surprising.

As an evolutionary biologist, Dawkins is passionately committed to the theory of natural selection proposed by Charles Darwin over a century ago. You’ve heard it. We all have. A species evolves as its defective or less-adaptable members die off. This natural process leads to the improvement of the species, as only the best specimens live long enough to pass on their genes to future generations. Often, the theory is boiled down to a naked proposition: “Only the strong survive.” The weak do not.

Well, that’s a simple statement of fact, as observed in the natural world. And if your focus is solely upon the physical robustness of an organism—and its desirability as a carrier of genetic material—then you would of course conclude that “the law of the jungle” is an all-round good thing. Natural selection is the hog-butcher’s friend.

Yet many religious believers—and perhaps most especially evangelical Christians—are uncomfortable with the whole idea. And not always because of a refusal to accept the theory of evolution or to examine the evidence supporting it. No.

Our discomfort stems, I think, not from natural selection’s observation that “only the strong survive,” but rather from its insistence that this is what should happen. It is, after all, the antithesis of Christian mercy. Of the defective, diseased, and discarded ones to whom Jesus ministered, it is said that he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

Carried into the sphere of public policy—which appears to be what Dawkins and others like him are advocating—natural selection inevitably morphs into the kind of nightmare embodied in Nazi Germany’s “euthanasia” program.

At the Nazi Party Conference in Nuremberg in 1929, Adolf Hitler said that “an average annual removal of 700,000-800,000 of the weakest of a million babies meant an increase in the power of the nation and not a weakening.” 3 Hitler was able to back up that statement by referring to the scientific arguments of Alfred Ploetz, the founder of German racial hygiene.

Applying the Darwinian theory of natural selection to human beings, Ploetz believed that an ideal society could be created through “human selection.” According to Ploetz’s utopian vision, government would examine the moral and intellectual capacity of citizens to decide who would be allowed to procreate. Disabled children would be aborted, while the sick and the weak would be “eliminated.” In other words, “Social Darwinism”—and Aktion T4.4

Thinking again about Richard Dawkins and his opinion of less-than-perfect human life, I reframe my previous questions: Who lives? Who dies? Who decides? And according to what criteria?

From its earliest beginnings, Christianity denounced infanticide as murder. In ancient Roman society, this was not the mainstream view. Roman law permitted citizens of the Empire to throw their unwanted babies away in desolate places, where exposure to the elements, dehydration, and starvation would claim their lives. Unless, that is, someone rescued them. History tells us that the Christians did exactly that. Venturing into these places of cruel and lonely death, followers of Jesus saved these babies, taking them into their homes and raising them as their own. 5

For the earliest Christians, every infant had worth. They viewed infanticide as the murder of a human being, not as a convenient way to rid society of excess females and perceived weaklings. To them, each child—whether male, female, perfect, or imperfect—was a person of infinite value, created in the image of God.

What the first-century church believed about infants is, I hope, believed of all human beings by the 21st-century church. We are all persons of infinite value, each of us bearing our Creator’s likeness. Let us, therefore, remain vigilant—and ready to speak out, lest ideology or expedience usurp mercy’s crown.





3 Völkischer Beobachter, Bavarian edition dated August 7, 1929. In: Enzyklopädie des Nationalsozialismus, edited by Wolfgang Benz, Hermann Graml and Hermann Weiß, Digitale Bibliothek, Vol. 25, p. 578, Directmedia, Berlin 1999

4 The code-name “T4” came from the street address of the euthanasia program’s coordinating office in Berlin: Tiergartenstrasse 4. For an excellent overview of this topic, visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website:

5 This clip from a “Day of Discovery” broadcast explains the practice of “exposure” in ancient Rome:





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