Here Rev. Coyle explains how Christians can look at life and death based on what the Bilbe and our forbears said.
Easter week this year saw two notable deaths. Neither was unexpected; both were newsworthy. The first death, that of Terri Schiavo, came after the removal of life-supporting measures. The second, that of John Paul II, came after the refusal of life-extending measures.
The way Christians look at life and death is based on what the Bible says and what our forbears said.
The Bible is clear in its Sixth Commandment, “thou shalt not kill”. St. Augustine wrote in City of God, “…this we pronounce as in every way to be right, that no one ought to inflict on himself voluntary death…” St. Thomas Aquinas made it even clearer, “…the passage from this life to a more blessed one is, however, not matter subject to human free will, but to God’s power.” The 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops passed a resolution affirming “that life is God-given and has intrinsic sanctity, significance and worth; resolved that euthanasia is neither compatible with the Christian faith nor should be permitted in civil legislation.” The Christian, then, is not free to take any life, his own or another’s. Or, better said, the Christian is bound to do what he can to save life.
That does not mean, however, that a Christian must allow extraordinary measures to prolong life beyond its natural end. In fact, the opposite is true: since the believer has the blessed assurance of everlasting life, he need not fear death. He may arrange to receive medication to relieve pain, even though the medication may have the side effect of hastening death. He may not take medication in order to kill himself; rather, he may take medication for pain which has the foreseeable but unintended effect of speeding the dying process. For example, the patient with raging cancer may take as much morphine as he needs even though the morphine will likely have the effect of depressing the body’s systems in a way that brings death sooner.
The Christian patient may also refuse to allow unproductive medical measures. If a measure is likely to fail to heal the patient, the patient may refuse it. If a measure is just a long shot with little chance of success, the patient may refuse it. Take the cancer patient: if aggressive chemotherapy is not likely to improve the patient’s chances of remission and may, in fact, sicken the patient and reduce the quality of his remaining life, the patient may refuse it.
One might say the Christian has a right to die just as he has a right to live. Sadly, the phrase “right to die” has been taken over by the aggressive proponents of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. They are wrong, dead wrong. The Christian’s right to die is a right not of his exercising but of God’s. When it looks like God is exercising that right for the Christian, he does not have to thwart God’s will by artificial means.
However, in Terri Schiavo’s case, removing her nutrition and hydration would have been justified only if in so doing they were sure it would improve her existence. No evidence suggests that to be true. The time to refuse life support was when she first collapsed several years ago. Having decided to use life-supporting measures on her when she first collapsed, they were bound to continue that support. Unless they could prove beyond any doubt that removing the support was not intended to end her life, their action could only be seen as killing Terri. I know many will disagree with me, sympathizing with her as being a vegetable, and seeing her death as merciful. But Terri’s right to live supersedes any human understanding, and her right to die was God’s prerogative. Sunny von Bulow continues her shadow existence at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York at the cost of more than a million dollars a year. I might think of her as being in a vegetative state and deplore the waste of money which could be used for good in other ways. But I believe she has a right to live also and would oppose any rationale attempting to justify the removal of her life-supporting systems.
On the other hand, reports from the Vatican suggested that the Pope declined extraordinary measures which might have artificially extended his life. He did not allow his aides to rush him to Gemelli Hospital once again. Dialysis might have helped his kidney failure, a ventilator might have helped him breathe, a pump might have helped his circulation. Instead, he chose to stay in his apartment, surrounded by people who loved him. He knew God was calling him home.
Not a bad way to go.
Sunny von Bulow, now 72, has been in a coma since December of 1980. Her husband, Claus von Bulow, was accused of trying to kill her with an overdose of insulin, but was acquitted. The case was the basis of the movie “Reversal of Fortune.”