Euthanasia and the Word of God
Dr. Jim Denison
It was the phone call from hell. I was on the back porch of our house, resting after a morning walk, when the father called. The doctors had just left his little girl’s hospital room. They told him it was time to turn off the machines, that there was nothing more they could do. But he and his wife didn’t have to do what they said. They could leave their baby on life support indefinitely while praying for a miracle.
If they removed the machines, were they playing God? Were they taking their girl’s life in their own hands? But short of divine intervention, why prolong the inevitable? Through his tears he asked me, What does God want us to do?
This wasn’t the first time a phone call stopped my world. Several years ago I was teeing off on the 10th hole of the local golf course when an assistant from the clubhouse drove a cart out to tell me I had an urgent message. He took me back to take the call. A college freshman in our church had put his father’s shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
It was the first time I preached the funeral message for a person who committed suicide. People kept asking me and I kept asking God why he didn’t stop the young man from destroying his life and his family with him. And we wanted to know what happened to him when he did.
Is the Bible still relevant in a world where our medical knowledge has outstripped our ethics? Does faith help when we deal with the most horrific decisions of our day–euthanasia, suicide, and abortion? If you haven’t needed to wrestle with these issues, be grateful. And keep reading, to prepare for the day you will.
Euthanasia and the will of God
You may remember Terri Schiavo and the national debate which surrounded her death. She had been living in a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS) since suffering a stroke in 1995. Now her husband wanted to turn off the machines, while her parents fought to keep her alive. The courts finally decided in the husband’s favor, and she died on March 31, 2005.
Most of us who watched the tragedy unfold wondered what to think. The legal issues involved in her medical care and death were enormous. When should society guarantee a person’s right to refuse life support? What kinds of statements and/or documents are necessary? Absent these, is the decision best left to the spouse or other immediate family? What role should health care providers play?
Nearly every person I spoke with on this subject said that he or she would not wish to be kept alive under such circumstances. Nearly every parent would want a role in making such a tragic decision. The legal and political issues raised by this tragedy are still being debated.
My interest in this issue is not legal but biblical. I’m writing to try to clarify my own mind on this difficult subject, and perhaps help others as they wrestle with this tragedy. Unfortunately, any of us could find ourselves where Mrs. Schiavo’s family was for 15 years.
Types of euthanasia
In trying to understand this issue, first I had to learn the language and history of the debate. Here’s a brief description of terms used by the media when they report on the subject.
“Euthanasia” is derived from the Greek word “eu” (well) and “thanatos” (death). It usually means a “good death” or “mercy killing,” and is understood to be the provision of an easy, painless death to one who suffers from an incurable or extremely painful affliction. Such an action is considered proper only when the suffering person wishes to die, or is no longer able to make such a decision.
A distinction is usually made between “active” and “passive” euthanasia. Active euthanasia occurs when someone acts to produce death. This is often called “assisted suicide,” as in the actions of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and others who have provided medical intervention leading directly to death. “Passive” euthanasia occurs when the patient is treated (or not treated) in a way which leads to death, but actions are not taken to cause death directly.
A third category has become common in recent years. “Letting die” refers to medical actions taken to enhance the patient’s well-being during the dying process. Unlike passive euthanasia, the doctor does not intend the patient to die as a result of this decision. Rather, the doctor withholds medical treatments which intensify suffering or merely postpone the moment of death for a short time.
For instance, it is not considered passive euthanasia to discontinue chemotherapy in cases of advanced cancer, especially if the drugs increase the suffering of the patient. The doctor does not intend this decision to cause death, even though death may result from his or her action.
In these terms, Terri Schiavo’s death resulted from passive euthanasia, since physical sustenance was withdrawn for the purpose of ending her life. Unlike most chemotherapy, food and water did not heighten her suffering. They were removed for the purpose of causing her death.
Ways to choose euthanasia
The decision to enact passive euthanasia is termed “nonvoluntary” since patients like Mrs. Schiavo cannot express their wishes. However, her parents could call the decision “involuntary,” believing that it went against her wishes as she would have expressed them. Her death would have been “voluntary” if she had given “informed consent” while motivated by her own best interests (unlike a person suffering from mental or emotional illness who wishes to die).
If Mrs. Schiavo had executed a “durable power of attorney,” she would have signed over all responsibility for her medical decisions to another person, usually her spouse. Because she did not take this action, the court gave her husband responsibility to make medical decisions for her, a decision known as “substituted judgment.”
Maintaining Terri Schiavo’s life would have required “heroic” or “extraordinary measures.” Some patients wish only “ordinary means” which offer reasonable hope of benefit and are not excessively burdensome. A third means of support could be called “basic,” providing only nutrition and water.