The agonizing issue of whether Terri Schiavo should live or die provoked such sharp division that it pitted even those closest to her against each other. Perhaps, with a human life hanging in the balance, such a decision should be painful. But did it have to turn so ugly?
The Christian Reformed Church has thought long and hard about such life-and-death issues.* It considers active euthanasia a violation of the sixth commandment. We may not “play God” with human life by actively terminating it.
Some say we also “play God” with human life by extending it. But we’re agreed that when an otherwise healthy teen needs an appendectomy, medical treatment to extend life isn’t just allowed, it’s required. But what about that dying senior, earnestly praying for God to take her? Must we insist on heroic measures to keep her alive? The CRC says no.
How about the fellow I knew who was dying in agony? Was I wrong to support his wife in pressuring the doctor to increase his morphine even though it might hasten death? The CRC says, no, as long as our goal was to ease his unbearable suffering, not to kill him.
But what about Terri’s case? Who should’ve made the call? How?
Hers is a prime example of how not to decide. The initial tragedy that befell Terri was brutally compounded by a breakdown of community that wounded all those around her. For Terri and her loved ones, it was a no-win either way. She either lived without dignity or died without it.
My ministry experience suggests that life-and-death decisions should be made in community. None of us live or die to ourselves. Choices we make about ourselves deeply affect others. Also, God’s truth and Spirit are given in community (John 14:26), not to isolated individuals.
The afflicted person should have her say. But so should a spouse, parent, and child. So should a medical practitioner, pastor, and lawyer. Because we participate in many spheres of life, those should at least be represented when decisions get made about life-sustaining medical treatment.
I remember a wife agonizing over whether to authorize the removal of a breathing tube and a heart “thumper.” Although her husband’s brain activity had ceased, the prospect of living with her decision to “pull the plug” was too painful for her. So she wanted us to make the decision together. She, her daughter, a nurse, a doctor, a lawyer, and yours truly prayed for the Spirit’s guidance. We experienced that so wonderfully in one another’s presence. The decision was unanimous. She was comforted by that burden shared—a burden we still carry on our conscience to this day.
Pray for healing for Terri’s dear ones. Learn from her by
- making a living will clearly stating your wishes;
- telling your loved ones exactly what you believe should happen to you and getting their agreement;
- telling your doctor clearly in writing what you’ve decided.
Don’t stall. Summon the courage now to deal with the “D” word. In faith we can rest assured that in death, as in life, we belong to our faithful Savior (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 1). Make all of your days radiate eternal life—even the one in which you breathe your last.*See Agenda for Synod 2000 for the study committee report on this subject. Also helpful is the study guide to that report, published by Faith Alive Christian Resources: Living Well, Dying Well: A Study of Euthanasia and End-of-Life Issues.