Ending or Prolonging Life
Tough Choices When Caring For Those Who are Seriously Ill
By Pastor Errol Hale
Medical technology and the ever shifting morals of our society are presenting people with tough questions concerning life and death. More and more people are wrestling with the question of euthanasia or “death with dignity.” The question is often posed like this:
“My relative is terminally ill, but could live for quite some time. We do not want him or her to suffer. Is it wrong to: a) pull the plug on life support? b) stop forced feeding? c) assist or condone physician-assisted death (over medicate to end life)?”
This booklet will not tell you what to do in cases that are not clear. Those decisions are yours to make before God. This booklet is intended to do two things. First, it will give some facts that will help you understand which cases have clear answers, and which do not. Second, this booklet will hopefully help you make the best decisions possible in those cases that are not clear.
Ending A Person’s Life
Euthanasia. What does it mean? It is not “Youth in Asia.” You may laugh, but that is what many think it is. The word euthanasia comes from the Greek words eu, meaning well or good, and thanatos, meaning death. Together they mean good death. Practically, the word means dying with dignity, without pain. It would seem that everyone would agree that would be the most preferred way to die.
Some argue that terminating a person’s life is an act of mercy. While it may be an act of mercy when referring to an animal, human beings are not animals. God gives life both to human beings and to animals. In Genesis 1:28, God gave mankind dominion, or authority, over all animal life. However, God did not give mankind authority over human life.
Prolonging A Person’s Life
For centuries, humans had no real power to perpetuate a person’s life. And to a degree, that remains true. However, with the advancement of medical technology, human beings have a far greater ability to keep a person alive beyond the time that the person would live without external assistance. These technologies have afforded countless people the ability to continue living beyond an illness, into recovery and restored health. For this we can be thankful.
There is another side to this technological extension of life, however. What about the patient who has no reasonable hope of recovery? Is it right to keep that person alive if technology only prolongs suffering and death? This is not as much a medical question as it is an ethical and even spiritual question. The sole authority for ethical and spiritual issues is the Bible. Here are four Biblical passages and some crucial points to consider:
1. Colossians 1:16-17 states that Jesus, who is God, is the creator and sustainer of all things.
God is the one who gives life. Human beings should not seek to create life, thereby usurping God’s role.
2. In Revelation 1:18 Jesus Christ declares that He holds “the keys of Hades and of Death.”
God takes life away. Human beings must not seek either to hold onto what God is taking or to take away what God is not taking.
3. Exodus 20 contains the Ten Commandments. In verse 13 we are clearly commanded, “You shall not murder.”
Murder is defined as taking a human life unlawfully. It is lawful (though not desirable) to take life in protecting one’s own life, in war, or as capital punishment for those crimes God declares to be capital offenses.
4. In Genesis 2:16-17, God told Adam and Eve that in the day they disobeyed Him, eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die. Romans 6:23 teaches that the wages (or earned consequences) of sin is death.
While no one wants to suffer or die, suffering and death are natural consequences of mankind’s sin. Suffering and death are reminders of the truth that human sin results in death.
Without trying to give answers to the difficult questions that each must wrestle with God over, the following are four typical scenarios, along with some issues to consider before making decisions.
An elderly or infirmed person is physically able to continue living, though in pain, with a loss of dignity, and with no reasonable hope of recovery. The person wants to die to avoid further pain, loss of dignity, and depression. The only way to end the person’s life would be by taking it. Regardless of the reasons, humans are not to take human life, either theirs, or someone else’s. This difficult situation is one where faith in God’s wisdom and love is necessary. As long as God does not take the life, neither should we. God never gave us life with a satisfaction guarantee. He did give us life with the command, and therefore the responsibility, to do the best with it that we are able.
An elderly or infirmed person is physically able to continue living, but the person will not eat. Because food is essential for life, the person will die if he or she persists in not eating. Should a person be force fed, either by tubes or intravenously? Humans, like animals, often stop eating for a period of time prior to death. The person’s refusal to eat may be a part of this natural occurrence. In that case, the person should be encouraged to eat, but if he or she refuses, force feeding may be prolonging what God is doing through natural means. However, it must be remembered that people are often force fed during prolonged illness or coma, and do recover.
An elderly or infirmed person is physically able to continue living, but the person cannot eat, either due to physical problems or unconsciousness. Should the person be force-fed? A major consideration must be the long term prognosis for recovery. If there is hope, we should do all we can, using the miracles of modern science to save lives. But if there is no reasonable hope, forced feeding may be a means of forestalling what God is doing naturally.
An elderly or infirmed person is only able to be kept alive by way of mechanical life support systems. Is it wrong to “pull the plug?” The first consideration must be the patient’s desires. Because patients are often unable to make those decisions due to their physical or mental condition, these issues should be discussed well before one is standing face to face with the dilemma. If the person desires to be kept alive, of course he or she should be. If the person does not want to be kept alive on machines, the question of reasonable hope of recovery again must be considered. The question, which is not always an easy one to answer, is, “Are we resisting the reality of death that God has ordained, or are we doing all we can to save a life?”
1. Questions of life and death in the event of a terminal illness or injury should be discussed with family long before one has to make these decisions. Family discussions, when no one is even sick, in which family members seek to understand each other’s wishes are important.
2. If medical technology can be employed to save a life, it should be.
3. Taking a person’s life, because we desire to spare that person pain, depression, or loss of dignity, is not right. It is an attempt to usurp God’s authority.
4. If we use medical technology to prolong life and suffering when there is no reasonable hope of recovery, and if the patient no longer desires to be “kept alive,” we may be working against God’s will.
Issues of life and death are knotty, and not always easy to untangle. However, as medical technology continues to advance, and as society’s respect for human life continues to decline, we are all likely to face these issues at one time or another. Let us be prepared to deal with them by giving careful thought before they are in our laps. Let us think soberly and biblically when dealing with them so we can live with our decisions.