End of Life Matters

The questions are starting to flow with some regularity once again.  This makes me happy!

The second question (submitted two days ago) was submitted by Yvette.  She wrote:  “Hi! Long time no post.  I have just read a story with CNN– regarding a little girl with an incurable, painful disease.  She has asked her parents that the next time she gets sick, to please not take her to the hospital.  All procedures are very painful and she is afraid that she will not make it back home. She is 5.  I know that you support the “death with dignity” law, as I do. But first off, what do you think God thinks about this?? The choice to choose how we leave in the case of a terminal, painful disease– and do you think that there is a difference between a child choosing and an adult – when the child knows that they are going to die?”

The questions Yvette raise are important and timely questions.  Just this year, the state of California passed an “End to Life Option” Act that had been before the public here for roughly 20 years.  The conversation about the Act was heated – and revealed some important differences between faith communities and faith perspectives.

As always, I’ll start by outlining a few of my thoughts on the controversial topic, and then invite you all in to the conversation.

As Yvette noted, I am a strong supporter of what have come to be known by many as “Death with Dignity” laws.  This means I support the right of individuals with terminal illnesses to end their life with the assistance of appropriate medical professionals.

Opponents of such a position often respond to supporters of such measures by saying, “Who are we to play God and allow some to end their life?  Only God should be allowed to do that!”

I have a HUGE problem with such an argument.  Individuals who use it forget that human beings “play God” all the time when medical professionals step in and decide to extend a life by either prescribing pharmaceutical products or performing surgeries.  The only individuals in my book who could use the “Who Are We to Step in and Play God” argument would be Christian Scientists who consistently resist medical intervention at every stage of life.

I think things have gotten so complicated in these matters because we human beings became so focused on what we CAN DO these days (i.e. extend life) that we have lost sight of some important fundamental questions – such as “What constitutes life?”  Is a person, for instance, alive simply because it is hooked up to a machine that artificially causes the body to “breathe” – even though there is no brain function whatsoever?

So what can we do to negotiate answers to such delicate questions?

There are several ways one could approach such a question.  All I can do is share my thinking and experience.

When I have found myself in such difficult places, I try to connect with what I believe God might want for us.  I believe God would want us to live lives that have some basic degree of awareness and meaning.  When individuals reach a stage in their terminal illness when basic levels of awareness and meaning are totally absent – and only their organs continue to function for a specifc period of time – then I think it is appropriate to start exploring one’s options.

One thing that many people don’t realize about “Death with Dignity” Laws is that all off the laws I have seen go to great lengths to ensure an individual isn’t able to take action to end his or her life on his or her own.  Individual are required to get the permission of at least two physicians who agree that their illness is terminal.  There is also typically a length of time attached to the process – so an individual can’t make a rash decision to end his or her life in one day and then follow through.  Each of these steps in the process was carefully written to ensure that such important decisions are informed decisions.

In the case of a child, there is another layer of consideration that must be built in: the role of the parents.  I am not aware of any state that allows a child under the age of 18 to get the help of a medical professional to end his or her life.  I believe such activity is reserved exclusively for adult.

In the case you described, Yvette, it sounded as if the child’s request was simply not to be taken to the hospital for additional care.  This is a different situation than that of “Death with Dignity” Laws.

If I were the parent of such a child, I would respect the wishes of my child (after, of course, consulting with my child’s doctors to ensure the illness is indeed terminal).  I would not want my child to suffer excruciating pain from the illness or treatment that would not save him or her just to keep him or her with me for a few more days.  That, I believe, would be my choice.  I certainly respect that other parents might feel differently in such a circumstance!

In closing, let me say this.  I believe that life is one of the most sacred gifts God has given to us.  It should be treated with the utmost care and respect.  I also believe that quality of life is an important dimension of consideration.  When an individual reaches the point in their journey where pain, suffering, and death are inevitable – and the only thing the medical establishment can do is prolong the physical pain and suffering, then I believe it is okay for individuals and their loved ones to make informed, sacred decisions about the individual’s treatment.

So what do you think?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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3 Responses to End of Life Matters

  1. ruthwabel says:

    I think the parents need to trust the child’s self-wisdom to know what is right for that child. To ignore the child’s wishes because the parents aren’t ready to let go borders on being selfish. Who want to make a child suffer any more than is necessary. I think kids instinctively know what’s right for themselves when they are in a serious situation like that.

  2. Stevie says:

    As a mother who cried when her kids got shots, and who agonized when my daughters were in labor, I can’t imagine what it is like to see a child suffer so. Parents’ instincts are so strong. We know when our kids hurt, and–though I can’t say for sure—I think I would make the decision these parents made.

  3. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    I find it very odd that people seem to generally agree that it is cruel to make a terminally ill or injured animal that is in pain continue to suffer until death occurs naturally, but when it’s a person who can actually tell you what they want, that consensus goes away.

    I believe every person, even a child, has a right to some control over what happens to their own body. So if the child’s choice seems at all reasonable to the parents, they ought to give some significant weight to her wishes—just as they would want someone to do for them if they were considered unfit to make their own medical decisions alone.

    I know what choice I would want for myself if I were wracked with an untreatable illness that made my life a burden to me and to others watching me suffer. It would be hypocritical of me to deny that same choice to others.

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