When Is It Right to Die?

In 2014, a U.K. judge ruled that, at the request of the mother, food and water should be withdrawn from her daughter Nancy Fitzmaurice, who was 12 years old and had significant disabilities which made her unable to talk, walk, eat, or drink; it took 14 days for her to die. One of the things that made this case particularly shocking was that at the time, the U.K. did not even have legalized euthanasia; in fact, it still doesn’t.

In 1992, Joni Eareckson Tada wrote a book with the title of this post; in 2018 the publisher came out with a revised edition, with some new material. It’s clear from the preface that the infamous decision by the U.K. judge is one of the things that prompted Joni to revise her book. I have no doubt that other developments also spurred her on. For example, there are now nine states, plus the District of Columbia, that have “Death with Dignity” laws; they permit doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Assisted dying in one form or another is now legal in ten countries; interestingly, nine of them are majority-white. Here are some definitions to clarify matters:

  • Euthanasia (“mercy killing”): steps are taken to end a person’s life by someone else
  • Assisted suicide: as the term implies, a person who wants to die is assisted by someone else
  • Assisted dying: this is an umbrella term including euthanasia and assisted suicide

I regard Joni as being especially “qualified” to write about this topic because she has been a quadriplegic since 1967, when she was 18. She is also a Christian and thus gives a Biblical perspective on this issue. To give further context: Joni is a staunch advocate for those with various kinds of special needs, whether they be physical (e.g. blindness), intellectual (e.g. autism), or both.

When I started reading Joni’s book, what I wanted was a Biblical answer to the issue of euthanasia. I got my answer, and much more. One important distinction she makes is between passive and active euthanasia. Passive euthanasia refers to the intentional withdrawing or withholding of treatment. An example of withdrawing treatment is “pulling the plug;” an example of withholding is not carrying out surgery that will extend life for a short time. Active euthanasia refers to a person’s directly and deliberately causing someone’s death; for example, a person could deliberately be given an overdose of pain-killers.

Joni comes to the conclusion that if a person is dying, then passive euthanasia is Biblically permissible. “Dying” is defined as a person’s having a relatively short estimated time remaining, as determined by medical professionals. Notice the plural here; this helps protect the dying person from anyone who might decide to take matters into his or her own hands. Maybe it goes without saying that if the dying person has expressed a desire not to have “aggressive” measures taken to extend his or her life, this also makes the decision much easier for the family; without that, such a decision may be too much for anyone to handle. Having a DNR order is also wise in that regard.

All of this explains what happened recently in a family I know. An elderly member of that family had been diagnosed with an illness so advanced that doctors estimated she had a matter of months, maybe even just weeks, remaining. She was mentally handicapped, so she was not able to make her own decisions. Furthermore, she had repeatedly over the years expressed how much she was looking forward to going to heaven to be with Jesus and her parents. Her family made the decision not to subject her to surgery which might extend her life a few months but which would make her remaining days more uncomfortable. Instead, they chose to make her as comfortable as possible at her home, where she had regular visits from a hospice nurse. She was allowed to eat and drink as she pleased. She went to heaven a matter of weeks later and is now indeed in the presence of the Lord and with her parents.

If you have never had these kinds of conversations with your loved ones, I would encourage you to do so; that way, if you face life-and-death decisions, you can make them and have the peace of God in doing so.

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