Question: Is it ever permissible for Christians to withdraw life-sustaining support to terminally ill individuals?
This is a question I am asked with ever increasing frequency as the medical technology continues to push back the threshold of physical death.
First, it is imperative to state that Christians must never countenance any medication or treatment that actively shortens life (i.e., euthanasia or “mercy-killing”).
The vexing question for people of faith, however, is “is it ever morally permissible to withdraw extraordinary life-extending treatments for terminally ill unconscious or comatose patients?” I need to note at this point that I agree with Pope John Paul II that the furnishing of nutrition and hydration to patients not able to feed themselves should never be defined as “extraordinary treatment,” but seen as a basic requirement for a Christian civilization, as opposed to a pagan one (cf. Matthew 25:35).
The first principle should be that the patient's will should take precedence over government officials, insurance underwriters, medical staff, or even loved ones. If at all possible, the patient’s wishes should take precedence as long as he or she does not desire to have active measures taken to shorten his or her life.
If an unconscious patient has left instructions in advance that extraordinary medical steps to extend life should not be taken, then I believe the patient’s wishes should be honored, knowing that natural physical death will ensue. Of course, if the patient has expressed the desire to avail himself or herself of such measures, then those wishes should be honored as well.
I believe a sentient human being has the right, when in the last stages of a terminal illness, to say, “I do not want any further extraordinary treatment. When I am near death, I do not want to elongate the process artificially with extraordinary measures such as heart-lung machines. Once again, this does not mean he or she has the right to say, give me something to hasten my physical death when I am near death” — that’s euthanasia.
I have personally faced both sides of this issue. My parents both went home to be with the Lord at the age of 92. My father expressed the desire to not have extraordinary medical measures employed to prolong his life and my mother expressed the opposite desire and my family did our best to accommodate their individual wishes.
What do you do when you have no guidance from the patient? I believe for a Christian, when a patient is terminal, unconscious, or comatose, it is permissible, but never required, to make the decision to unplug heart-lung machines and other means of artificially extending physical life, especially after brain death has occurred.
I myself have left instructions that if I am terminally ill and comatose, that when brain death occurs, I am to receive no additional life support measures. Of course, my view is determined by the fact that as a born-again Christian I have no fear of death, believing that “to be absent from the body” is “to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
May our heavenly Father give us all wisdom as we seek to discern His will in these weighty matters.
Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches.