The Bible’s Viewpoint
The “Right to Die”—Whose Decision?
‘DON’T keep me going like a vegetable!’ cried 88-year-old Clara from her hospital bed. After being resuscitated three times in one week, she just wanted her life to end in peace. So it goes with many terminally ill patients; they plead to die. For doctors and judges this is a debatable question—for relatives a painful choice. But whose decision is it?
Why the Dilemma?
Sometimes, according to the book Awareness of Dying, there is “a senseless prolonging of life within hospital walls by medical technology run wild.” When imminent death can be postponed by extraordinary medical procedures, questions arise concerning the right to die with dignity. May not patients have some choice in what kind of death—agonizing or peaceful? As The New Encyclopædia Britannica explains: “A widely discussed moral dilemma is presented by the patient who is artificially kept alive by a machine. The question then may be whether the machine should be switched off.” A surgeon from a large U.S. medical center asks: “Is turning off the respirator murder? Is there any moral or ethical difference in not starting the respirator, as compared to stopping it once it is started?”
The dilemma grows because there is no uniform definition of terms such as “alive” and “dead,” and no guarantee of premises such as “incurable,” “terminally ill,” or “dying.” What is “extraordinary” varies according to place, time, and specialist’s skills. And conflicts can arise between the interests of patients, relatives, and medical staff. Furthermore, at a workshop on medical ethics conducted in 1982 by The College of Medicine, University of Lagos, Nigeria, Dr. Oladapo Ashiru admitted that “the awareness of death is difficult to study objectively.”
These problems challenge the conscience of doctors who feel obligated to observe moral, ethical, and religious convictions. Dr. Ashiru concluded: “A considerable amount of attention, respect, medical judgment and restraint as well as firmness is required in dealing with each situation.”
What the Bible Says
Life is a sacred gift from our Creator. (Psalm 36:9) It is to be treasured. Out of respect for God’s view of life, out of regard for secular law, and in order to hold a good conscience, a Christian would never intentionally cause anyone’s death.—Exodus 20:13; Romans 13:1, 5.
Doctors admit that “intensive efforts to maintain life can, in reality, become prolongation of dying, rather than prolongation of living.” So, what if doctors say the best they could do would be to stretch out the dying process by mechanical devices? Where death is clearly imminent or unavoidable, the Bible does not require the artificial lengthening of the dying process. Allowing death to take its course under such circumstances would not violate any law of God.
A Christian would find it helpful to reflect on these Bible accounts: Both Job and Hezekiah appeared to be terminally ill, but they recovered. (Job 7:5, 6; 42:16; 2 Kings 20:1-11) Therefore, do not be too quick to conclude that someone is dying. The outcome was different, though, in the case of Ben-Hadad. (2 Kings 8:7-15) The armor-bearer of Saul refused the king’s request to help him to ‘die with dignity,’ and David executed as bloodguilty another man who claimed to have done that ‘mercy killing.’ (1 Samuel 31:4; 2 Samuel 1:6-16) Therefore, the Bible does not approve the hastening of death.
These examples illustrate the need for caution in dealing with cases today. Each one has its own peculiarities and should be decided prayerfully with due regard for God’s view of the preciousness of life. In this, we have a fine example in Rebekah, who, when anxious about her life, “went to inquire of Jehovah.”—Genesis 25:22.
A common question is: ‘Whose life is it, anyway?’ The decision is primarily the patient’s because he is the custodian of the Creator’s gift of life. (Acts 17:28) However, if a patient becomes incompetent, the next of kin or an appointed agent may serve as a substitute decision maker. In either case the surrogate should honor and assert the patient’s rights, not his own. Similarly, in the case of minor children, parents have the God-given duty and legal right to decide for their offspring.—Psalm 127:3.
On the other hand, as stated in the Columbia Law Review, “there is widespread recognition that a courtroom is not the proper forum for making treatment choices. . . . Courts are ill-equipped to assume the role of substitute decision maker.” As for the physician, would it not be unethical for him to force his own religious convictions upon the patient? He should act within the dictates of the patient’s religion or withdraw from the case if his religious beliefs produce a serious conflict of conscience. Often the team approach is best, with physician, minister, and family cooperating with the patient for a decision in his best interests.
Whatever the outcome of the decision, Christians can rely on the Creator’s promise of a time when no one will say, “I am sick.” (Isaiah 33:24) For the terminally ill, there is God’s marvelous promise of a resurrection to a paradise of health and life under God’s Kingdom. (Acts 24:15; Revelation 21:1-4) That time is near when, through Jesus Christ, Jehovah God will grant to obedient humans the right to live, eternally!—John 3:36.
[Picture on page 21]
What is being prolonged—living or dying?