The God Squad: How do we make those final choices?

Q: I enjoy reading your column every Saturday. I'd appreciate your opinion on the following:

My wife and I are in our early 50s and coping with ill parents. We also see many other elderly people with a wide array of health problems. Modern medicine is prolonging the life of many people these days. However, this doesn't necessarily guarantee any sort of quality of life or, in some cases, death with dignity.

I'm sorry, but to me modern medicine often simply prolongs the agony. As a Christian, I realize that committing suicide is one of the worst sins one can commit. My question is this: If I make it to my 80s and refuse drugs or other treatments to keep me going, would God consider this a form of suicide? — M., Buffalo, N.Y.

A: You have felt the deep dilemma that advances in medical science have imposed upon all people at the edge of life. Let's think together and pray together about what healing means in our time.

There are two forms of healing. One form (like treatment for pneumonia) eliminates the disease or pathology and hopefully makes the patient well again. The second form of therapy (like dialysis for people with renal failure) doesn't eliminate the underlying disease but enables the patient to live often years longer while enduring the effects of a chronic illness.

There's a third form of medical treatment that's not medical therapy. It's called palliative care and its sole purpose is to manage pain at the end of life. This is often done through hospice care at home or in a hospice facility.

According to all the major faiths, we're obligated to accept the two forms of real therapy. The reason we must allow ourselves to be healed is a foundational religious belief that God owns everything in the world: "The earth is the Lord's" (Psalm 24:1, I Corinthians 10:26) This world-ownership obviously includes our bodies.

Now, because God owns our bodies, we're not morally or spiritually entitled to kill what we don't own. Refusing therapy for yourself or your parents is killing what you do not own. Your question is complex, but the religious answer is bracingly simple.

This religious belief is the exact opposite of the common secular view that we own our bodies and therefore we ought to be able to kill ourselves (or ask others to kill us) when we're not satisfied with our quality of life. This is a basic moral choice about the way we view ourselves in the world.

If you choose the secular approach that you own your own body, obviously you have the right to end your life whenever you choose. You also have the right to help your parents end their lives. However, the problems with this view ought to be obvious.

Sometimes the frustrations with infirmity can lead a person to briefly give up on life. However, such suicides or assisted suicides eliminate the chance for a change of mind. Good days can follow bleak days and the sun can shine again on our broken bodies. As Hemingway wrote in "A Farewell to Arms," "The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places."

Also, there's no problem in measuring life, but there a huge problem in measuring the quality of life. I don't know how you do that. I once counseled a man who loved folk dancing and wanted to die when he was told that he needed to have his leg amputated. He couldn't imagine a life without dancing. After many discussions, he decided to live on and dance in his memories.

Fr. Tom Hartman and I were actually once asked by a quadriplegic, after his motorcycle accident, to kill him. Over time, however, he decided to live on and eventually formed an organization to help other paraplegics move through the depression following their accidents.

Quality of life is hard to use as justification for an act that has no chance of being reversed when your soul brightens. Another problem with helping ill parents die is that you, their child, can't always be certain whether your true motivation is to free them from the burdens of their illness, or to free yourself from the burden of their care. Such self-interest in ending the life of sick parents often exists alongside true compassion and it's difficult to untangle these motivations.

The religious view of how we should treat our bodies, on the other hand, s more direct and spiritually secure, in my view. If therapy is possible, we should accept it because it is God who should determine when our lives should end. This view does not support quality-of-life arguments.

However, such a viewpoint doesn't commit us to futile medical tortures that have no therapeutic purpose. When we can't be cured and when we can't have years added to our lives by clinically accepted treatments, there is no religious reason to submit to continued futile or experimental procedures.

Just as it's a blessing to preserve life, so too is it a blessing not to postpone death. At the point when therapy is no longer possible, palliation care is the best course. It enables us to say goodbye without pain and continue our spiritual journey into a place where there is no suffering and where God wipes away every tear.

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