Christans and Living Wills

An article by one of our regular contributors here at the Cafe, discusses the moral questions a Christian might encounter in drawing up a living will, or in acting on a loved one’s desires expressed in one.

Originally published in Raleigh News and Observer.

By Greg Jones

Q: What is the Christian view of the following provisions in a living will?

* Withdrawing artificial hydration.

* Withdrawing artificial nutrition.

* Withdrawing life-prolonging measures.

Are any or all of the above considered to be killing or suicide?

There are, to be sure, a variety of responses to these questions in global Christianity. I have found a great deal of similarity among the various denominations — ranging from Southern Baptist to Roman Catholic. In my own, the Episcopal Church, our General Convention in 1991 resolved to encourage the use of living wills, which might include provisos to withdraw hydration, nutrition or extreme life-prolonging measures in limited circumstances. The key issue for us resides in our understanding from God’s revelation of a few key truths.

First, we believe that all human life is sacred and that God’s commandment “Do not kill” is authoritative. Second, we recognize too that death is part of the cycle of our natural life. As Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time to be born, and a time to die.” Third, we proclaim that in the birth, death, Resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, God transforms our earthly deaths into eternal lives. As Paul writes, by Christ “has come the resurrection of the dead.”

With these three points before us, we do not believe it is morally acceptable to intentionally kill someone who suffers from an incurable illness. Our covenant in baptism to honor the dignity of every human being encourages us to seek palliative treatments for those in pain.

And, if the time has drawn near, we want to allow people to die with dignity, without artificially prolonging the act of dying. This might include the removal of hydration and nutrition or other artificial measures.

Because the decision to remove life-sustaining systems still has a tragic side, it is a decision that must ultimately rest with the patient or his/her surrogates. The decision is best made in prayer, with family and friends, to the merciful God who suffered and died as the Christ and who by grace restores us to wholeness.

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