Five considerations when end-of-life issues arise

This is my first Mother’s Day without my mother. She passed away May 25, 2004. Those were traumatic times during her brief but agonizing illness. She suffered from pancreatic cancer. She had a stroke as a result of the cancer on March 30. From that point it only took 51 days for Mother to leave the confines of the flesh for heaven.

The SBTC Executive Board was kind enough to grant me a leave of absence to care for her. With the exception of about 10 days, I was by her side. Mother’s sister sacrificially joined me in caretaking. We were together when mother breathed her last.

Mother had signed a “Do Not Resuscitate” order as well as a Power of Attorney for Health. She was a registered nurse. She said, “I don’t want to be artificially kept alive.” We discussed the probability of a stroke that would prohibit her from swallowing. She told me that she did not want a feeding tube or IV. She did not want to be at the hospital. She wanted to die at home.

Her last 14 days were without food or water. She was unable to swallow. She had several strokes. Some would say that she was not fully conscious or feeling pain. I do not know whether the cancer or dehydration took her. I prayed for God to relieve her from the struggle.

I have shared with you my personal experience to set it in a larger context. With the very different deaths of Terry Schiavo and Pope John Paul II, we are confronted with end-of-life issues. While pro-life advocates are better known for opposing abortion, euthanasia is just as critical. I do not think we can solve this excruciating dilemma by some hard, fast rules. We do have biblical principles like the sanctity of life and the sovereignty of God over all our days to guide us, though. With those principles in mind, here are some thoughts I had to take into consideration:

1. When a person has a terminal illness approaching imminent death, “heroic measures” or even food and water may be voluntarily refused. Those who are not terminally ill and in danger of imminent death should be sustained by food and water.

2. A “Do Not Resuscitate” or Living Will does not mean that we have the right to withhold food and water under all circumstances. Removing a feeding tube may be active euthanasia, while never placing one in a person who has explicitly stated they did not want one is another matter.

3. Making “quality of life” the determining factor of extending or ending a person’s life places a variable that is indeterminate. The subjective standard of “quality of life” allows family, government or individuals to actively perform euthanasia.

4. Sanctify of life must be the measure, not “quality of life.” Once falling down the slippery slope of euthanasia, “economic productivity” or “societal burden” could become reason for ending life.

5. In the case of respirator or ventilator assistance, a person may be disconnected when physical life is sustained by this means alone and there is no other evidence of life.

My heart was broken to watch my mother waste away. I know that it was God’s place to say when she was to depart, not mine, Job 14:5. I am not a bio-ethicist. Nor do I have all of the answers. These are some of the issues that I debated in my mind.

As President Bush said, “We are to err on the side of life.” It is not the wish of the person that is the criterion. If we let it be, some would commit suicide. It is not the desires of the family. Motive and emotions may dim the judgment. It is the objective truth of life. We are to sustain life as naturally as possible until God calls us home.

Executive Director Emeritus
Jim Richards
Southern Baptists of Texas Convention
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