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Talking About Euthanasia

Dear VSM LifeSharers,                                                                   April 2011

             Today’s debates surrounding euthanasia are framed almost exclusively in terms of technology. Such terms as "brain death"; "persistent vegetative state"; "intrusive means of nutrition and hydration"; "heroic" means of "prolonging death"; “the quality of life”; the common paranoia over being "kept alive on machines,” and so on all tend to present society's responsibility to the infirm and severely disabled as a radically new problem because of the advances in this century of medical technology.

             Even Christians often act as if modern times have presented God Himself with some kind of dilemma – the forces of science going beyond His scope of action.  Such Christians have begun to look at the absolutes given in Scripture in a condescending way. "Well, those were applicable in Jesus' time and perhaps even in the 19th century but they certainly can't be applicable now, at least not in a literal way. We have new problems; we have to find new solutions. We require an up-to-date source of authority to guide us through these murky waters." And who becomes those authorities?  A hospital committee?  An insurance company?  A government bureaucrat?  An author whose book is endorsed by Oprah or Ellen?

             Don’t play this game.  For central to Christianity is the eternality of truth.  God’s revelations of His law are timeless and humble submissions to those revelations are always in order – for all and any times, under all and any circumstances.  The Bible teaches us that "Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever" and His truth as given in the Holy Scriptures are forever "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness."  The world is still judged by the standards of His righteousness as they pertain to any moral question.  And that naturally includes all issues of the sanctity of human life.  Therefore, the debate is not, at its core, an argument based upon technology at all but rather upon changing values. 

            In the beginning of our pro-life ministries (1980-81), we tried to warn people that euthanasia was right on the horizon.  And not just what was called "passive euthanasia" but deliberate actions taken by doctors, nurses and others that would effectively hasten people's exit from this life.  Well, we reached that horizon years ago and have now gone far beyond it. Yet most prefer to ignore euthanasia's constant presence.  They may be aware of Jack Kervorkian and of suicide clinics in Europe.  They may even have read of physician-assisted suicide laws in Oregon and elsewhere.  But euthanasia has grown pervasive in those places where most Americans least expect it -- those hospitals and nursing homes in their own neighborhoods, places where "quality of life" philosophies have combined with cost containment policies to bring in a new ethic of "live and let die."

            I faced this alarming reality again last week when a phone call came in from a woman in another part of the United States who was looking for help in her efforts to keep her mother from being denied basic medical care.  Until recently, this woman had been taking care of her Mom but, after a heart attack and stroke, her mother had been hospitalized and then admitted to a long-term nursing facility.  It was shortly after that when another family member (one who had her mother's power of attorney) opted to place her in hospice care -- this even though the patient was still alert, responsive and very much wanting to live as long as God desired.

            Since then it's been a heartbreaking trial for the considerate daughter who is fighting the facility's staff to give her mother the most basic of care.  In fact, when the daughter has intervened in any way (even applying a soothing cream to her mother's hands), she's been criticized and warned off.

            The woman, desperate for assistance in protecting her mother, had been searching the web for the last week.  She had been shocked and heartbroken to learn how common these cases are and how many people are in the same situation; that is, fighting the medical system in order to get quality care for their loved ones. In her search, she came across Vital Signs Ministries.

            We spoke of many things and I won't try and summarize our long conversation but let me pass along just a few points of my advice.  You may find it of some value too.  1) Quality medical care provides, at the very least, these things: oxygen, nutrition, hydration and antibiotics to fight infection.  Those are the basics to insist upon.  I'm not suggesting that every possible surgery or drug or other treatment is morally required.  But the basics are.  For even if I am severely injured or grievously ill...even if I am dying, I am not yet dead!  Therefore, I should be given the best care possible to the very end and not denied these basic life-giving things.  If they are withdrawn, no matter what eventually is written in the post-mortem, the cause of death will actually be the removal of these necessities.  So until that moment comes when the Creator says "Enough," I should be cared for properly.  As the Hippocratic Oath requires the physician to swear, "First, do no harm."

            2) One's presence is invaluable in securing the best care possible for your loved ones in a hospital, nursing home or hospice program.  Be there.  Pay attention.  Get all the information possible.  Take notes.  Don't be afraid to ask penetrating questions, seek second opinions, offer suggestions.  Go to the top with complaints or concerns -- including the doctor, the head nurse, the director of the institution, and the local representative of the state aging office.

            3) In cases where you believe the facility is failing to provide adequate care, consider finding another place.  And don't be afraid, if necessary, to have your lawyer get involved.

            4) Be very careful not to sign the standard documents given you upon entrance to a facility.  DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) orders and living wills are the primary justifications for stopping proper medical care.  Draw up your own or use the Life Support Directive that we have posted on our web site. I print a copy below.

            In the absence of my expressed instructions, I hereby indicate that I wish all life-saving, life-sustaining and/or life-prolonging measures to be used to preserve my life, regardless of condition, dependency, prognosis, or any other factor, including a terminal condition or the absence of brain activity in whole or part. Under no circumstance is any other party authorized to deny or withdraw any such measure, thereby ending or shortening by act or omission my life span. My life span is determined by God and must not be shortened by me or others. I appreciate and reverence God's gift of life under any and all circumstances and express my heartfelt gratitude towards all who shall help me preserve and protect that sacred gift. I request that this directive be entered into my hospital record as testimony to my instructions and desires.

            And finally, of course, 5) Pray for God's help.  Pray that the culture will once again turn towards ideals of mercy and moral responsibility in our care for the aged, the sick, and the injured.  For human beings are created by God in the image and likeness of God.  In the 21st century as well as in Eden, humans in their very nature bear that divine image in an unique, infinitely valuable form.  Therefore, to murder an innocent human life, in addition to being a heinous crime against man, is also the gravest act of blasphemy against God.  Even if the killing is shrouded in the defensive justifications of abortion, infanticide or euthanasia, murder is always unacceptable to God.

           Christians especially must heed this message and be fully aware of the force which God intends.  The Commandment does not read, "Thou shalt not murder unless you have a heartfelt motive."  It does not read, "Thou shalt not commit murder until the 21st Century when advancing technology, overpopulation, economic considerations, fear of lawsuits, concerns over being a burden, and so on make it socially acceptable for you to do so."

            No, we Christians serve the God of Scripture, not the god of this world.  It is because of the loyalty we owe to He Who bought us with His sacrifice on the Cross that we are obliged to fight for the lives of unborn babies.  It is also the source of our duty to fight for the lives of those who are threatened because they are handicapped or disabled or who, for any other reason, are potential victims of the disregard modern culture has for human life.  It is because He commands us to meet the concerns of the truly needy that we must fight for the right to life of the elderly, the infirm, and the severely disabled.

            For Vital Signs Ministries this respect for all human life motivated us to start the AAA Center for Pregnancy Counseling 25 years ago.  It is what has motivated our nearly 30 years of prayerful sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics – sidewalk counseling.  It is has been the foundation for our internet outreaches, our educational programs, our publications and writing, our many years of “Vital Signs” radio, my 25 international missions, our conferences, our numerous experiences in civil disobedience, our principled and peaceful protests, our discipleship and networking, and our other advocacy activities. 

             And it is that profound respect for all human life that has fueled our nearly 30 years of ministry in nursing homes – including our latest programs, “When Swing Was King” and “Bedside Music.”  You’ve heard us describe the extravagant response we’ve had to “When Swing Was King” but the other is one we’re just beginning with pilot programs in two nursing homes.  It involves our donation to the libraries of those nursing homes several audio compilations.  They include programs of big band music, hymns, and Bible reading.  We’ll keep you informed of how these pilots “fly” in the next few months. 

            Of course, these years of effective pro-life advocacy have been enabled by the fervent prayers and generosity of dear friends like you.  We are forever grateful for your sacrifices in our behalf and very mindful of the honor it is to be a part of your service to God in the defense of human life.  Please continue to stay with us and, in these days where our income has declined even as our opportunities have increased, we would appreciate your mentioning Vital Signs Ministries to those among your friends and church members who might consider becoming LifeSharers too.  Thank you so much.