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A closer look at end-of-life decisions

hospital patient, elderly
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The recent headline reading “Anne Heche ‘not expected to survive’ following fiery crash,” reveals the follow-up story that since Heche had expressed a wish to be an organ donor, “she’s being kept on life support to determine if any are viable.” What part of Heche was still “alive?” Would organs be harvested before she actually died? Now declared “dead,” wasn’t she already?

Concurrently, news from across the Pond reports the death of 12-year-old Archie Battersbee, who died after life support was withdrawn following a long legal battle. Archie’s mother had insisted he was still alive, despite findings of the courts that Archie was brain dead. 

Each of these cases raises a question being asked in the hallways of hospitals day in and day out: How long should artificial life support continue? For family members, this decision can be both daunting (“Are we doing the right thing?”) and haunting (“Did we do the right thing?”). 

Taking one step back, have you walked down the hallway of a nursing home lately and passed by patient after patient, seemingly no longer sentient — “just a vegetable,” as we often say, crudely? Who would wish to end their life that way? “Just shoot me!” we hear ourselves saying. But we don’t shoot them. We feed them and care for them as best we can until they draw their last, labored breath. Is that qualitatively different from life support? They’re not feeding themselves!

And what of palliative hospice care for those facing a terminal illness, especially at the end? What is the difference between administering increasing levels of morphine, and intentionally bringing life to a sudden end? Hopefully, the crucial difference between comfort and killing

“Death with dignity” has an appealing ring to it. Little wonder there are increasing calls for legalization of euthanasia for those poor souls languishing in nursing homes, or even for “doctor-assisted suicide” for those who request it. Who wants their loved ones wasting away as “mere vegetables?” Who wants to suffer? We’re kinder to animals, aren’t we? Yet, the euthanasia of animals is a constant, if counterintuitive, reminder of the difference between sacred human life and lower life forms. It is not for us to play God, either with ourselves or others.

Although the typical end result of “pulling the plug” is death, it’s not euthanasia, but simply letting nature take its course. We are born to die! In the phrase, “artificial life support,” the operative word is “artificial.” While modern medicine has made it possible to artificially support patients temporarily unable to breathe, long-term support where there is little or no hope for survival merely highlights the artificiality of “life” that is no longer actual life.     

For the Christian, especially, at some point it’s time to “Let go, and let God.” If a patient can make a comeback without support, then praise God! If not, then praise God for the life of the one we have loved!  For believers, difficult end-of-life decisions should be far less distressing. Alongside the uncertainty surrounding life support, sad nursing homes, and palliative hospice care, is the absolute certainty of the Resurrection, and the hope of a deathless life to come. 

Comes then a more personal question for us all: When we are near our own end, will we be clinging for all we’re worth to a plug on the wall, or to an unflinching faith that conquers all?

F. LaGard Smith is a retired law school professor (principally at Pepperdine University), and is the author of some 35 books, touching on law, faith, and social issues.  He is the compiler and narrator of The Daily Bible (the NIV and NLT arranged in chronological order). 

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