In response to my post “A Case of Life and Death,” Doug Chaplin at MetaCatholic wrote a post in which he disagrees with my conclusions on the issue of termination of life. I want to return to this issue since it is a problem that affects many people, primarily those who are in ministry.
First of all, I want to apologize to Doug for my delay in responding to his post. Since January I have been on sabbatical and immersed in reading and researching for a book I hope to finish writing by the end of August. For this reason I have limited the time I dedicate to blogging. I will mostly work on weekends and try to post as often as time allows.
In reality, Doug and I are not too far apart on this issue. I agree with Doug that hospitals and doctors have the right to decide that no more treatment should be offered to a patient when all treatments have failed and when the situation is terminal. In the case of the patient mentioned in the story, the situation seems to be terminal and no further treatment is possible.
The issue I raised in my post is who has the right to terminate life, the doctors or the family? In the article I cited in my post, it is clear that Rosenblum, the writer of the article, is writing from a perspective of one who opposes termination of life by doctors. Thus, his article is “written tendentiously” because the writer takes the side of the family against the doctors’ decision.
Let me illustrate the issue I am raising by using abortion as an example. By using abortion as an example I am not discussing the merits of abortion, whether I am in favor or against abortion or whether abortion is right or wrong. Rather, I use abortion as an example because it is related to the issue at hand, the right to live and the right to die.
In cases of abortion, it is the patient who decides whether the fetus lives or dies. Once the woman makes a decision to have or not to have an abortion, she decides whether the fetus lives or dies. I do not know what the law in the UK is regarding abortion, but here in the US, a minor can decide to have an abortion even without her parent’s consent. In this case, it is the individual, not the doctors and not the parents, who decides the right to live and the right to die.
In the case of the patient in Canada, an Orthodox Jew who believes that it is wrong to take “any action designed to shorten life,” the doctors should honor the family’s request and not take matters into their own hands and decide to remove the machines that keep the man alive, because their decision goes against the family’s and the patient’s wishes. I believe that it should be the family’s right to make the decision when their loved one will die, not the doctors.
Personally, I do not want my life to be prolonged by artificial means. Although I believe that every life is important and precious, I also believe that to prologue life artificially may not be what God intended for his creatures, primarily when it is clear that normal life has come to an end.
As Doug wrote, science and technology have created a modern phenomenon that was not known a century ago. With better diagnoses, better medicines, and better treatment life can be prolonged beyond normal expectations. There was an old saying that pneumonia was the elderly’s best friend, because when the elderly became seriously ill, pneumonia would hasten death and shorten the time of suffering. Today the elderly takes a pneumonia shot to avoid pneumonia and the machines keeps a patient living longer and thus prolonging the time of suffering.
There must be a better way and I am quite sure it is already being practiced in some places. To say that doctors have “the sole right to make decisions about treatment, even if it goes against a patient’s religious beliefs” is insensitive and, from my perspective, wrong. Look at all the agony that the Terri Schiavo case caused a few years ago.
Here is what I would like to see happen:
1. Hospitals should have a written policy about termination of life in case no further treatment can be offered to a dying patient. The policy should clearly state that treatment will cease when no further treatment is available.
2. The family and the patient (if able) should be informed of the policy and be clear that no further treatment will be offered when the case becomes terminal.
3. The patient would be admitted with the understanding that there will be no further treatment when the case becomes terminal. In case the family or the patient refuses to sign the release form, the patient and the family would be free to look for another hospital that will be willing to prolong the life of the patient through artificial means.
I do not think a hospital would adopt such a policy for fear of litigation. Thus, it becomes very important for the hospital to communicate to patients and to family members their policy about termination of life before a patient is admitted. This way, the family will have a clear understanding about what will happen in case of terminal condition.
In the case of the elderly Jewish man, it is already too late to apply such a policy. For this reason, I believe the doctors should not remove the machines because the family opposes and because the man will surely die. The hospital should transfer the patient to another hospital which will allow the man to die in peace. Instead, they made the decision to cease treatment, remove the machines, and allow the man to die. By taking matters into their own hands, the doctors take upon themselves the right to make the decision, against the family wishes, that a man should die. To me, that is wrong.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Tags: Abotion, Death, Life, Terri Schiavo