Q&A on Life Support
QUESTION: My father had respiratory arrest. The doctors asked if my siblings and I wanted the doctors to put my dad on life support. My father is a very ill man. He already had cancer and suffers from extreme pain. Is it wrong to have my father on life support or should we allow my father to rest in peace? Please help me – we are fighting about this because I want my father to have peace and no more suffering in his life.
ANSWER: Caring for someone who is considered advanced in years and in poor health is a challenge. On the one hand, our love for that person compels us to do whatever we can to prevent his death. On the other hand, our love for a person wishes to alleviate pain.
There are Biblical principles that guide us in these matters.
- We are stewards or caretakers of God’s blessing of life.
Even though we can make all sorts of decisions about how we live life and care for life, it never truly is our life. Scripture tells us: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20) Every decision we make about caring for our own lives or for the life of another should be done from the perspective that we are caring for something owned by God. For example, when you own an old car and it begins to have problems, we often are quick to say it is done. One more breakdown and we are finished with the car…..
On the other hand, if you borrowed a friend’s old car and it breaks down you are more inclined to care for it because it is not your own – it belongs to your friend. While you possess it you are a caretaker for it. You are watching over it and protecting it so that you can give it back in a condition that demonstrates you took care of it well.
You and your siblings are stewards over the life God gave to your father. The primary question you should be asking is, “How may we best honor God in the way we care for this blessing of our father’s life?” Remember, even such major decisions are all about God. He is to be glorified in all that we do (1 Corinthians 10:31).
- Life does indeed come to an end
Since Adam and Eve fell into sin there is a conclusion to every life called death. It is sinful to cause death or hurry it along (Exodus 20:13). At the same time, to irrationally fight to keep a life that God is calling would be wrong. We see this error often when a person’s love for another person is so great that it clouds judgment. Even when every indication is that there is no hope we sometimes are inclined to force care and treatment, even though it has no reasonable expectation that it works. The BIG difference, however, is that as Christians who know what Jesus did for our sins, we do not need to fear death. We are told: “’Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55–57)
If medical care is thrust upon a person who otherwise clearly would die that would be wrong. We do not need to fear death.
So the tension right now is between the first principle which calls for us to protect life, and this second principle which calls for us to not fear death.
- There is purpose in suffering
It is a noble and good thing to alleviate suffering. In doing so we demonstrate our love for others. That is much of the point behind Matthew 25:34ff.
At the same time, Scripture clearly demonstrates that suffering also has purpose. For example, the man born blind occurred so that God could be glorified (John 9:1-3).
Sometimes suffering makes us more conscious of God (1 Peter 2:19).
Perhaps most applicable in this circumstance is that suffering may merely be an outlet for the faith of others. Read the story of the Good Samaritan (starting at Luke 10:30). What purpose was the suffering of the man lying in the ditch after being beaten? It was clear from the two men who walked by and the Samaritan who helped that the man’s suffering was to provide an opportunity for others to show their faith and love for others.
For example, sometimes the suffering of a patient with severe dementia might look like it is serving no purpose. In fact, it might be forcing others to reevaluate their own priorities in life. It might be forcing others to reconsider what it is in life that is of the greatest value and worthy of our time.
Even when your father is suffering, maybe God wants his suffering in order to accomplish a different purpose in his children or in others who talk to their children about him or see their love. You see, even in bad circumstances, God promises to create good from it (Romans 8:28).
Putting this all together
So how does this apply to your circumstance? First of all, I do not know how ill your father is. I do not know what options are at his disposal to alleviate his suffering. I do not know what is the expectation for him to continue living with different kinds of treatment. All of these factors make it difficult for me to provide certain guidance so please pardon and false presumptions that I may make.
I often advise people to consider the standard of “reasonable expectation.” Because it is our responsibility to care for the lives entrusted to us then we are to do that which is reasonably certain to provide care. Put another way, if putting your father on a ventilator helps him breathe, then it is reasonable to do so. Ventilator support is not curative. It will not heal dementia or cancer. So if he has trouble breathing, providing help with his breathing is a good thing.
If your father is old (80s or older) and in a weak condition, it is NOT reasonable to assume that if his heart stops that it can be started again and therefore I would advise not to put him on a resuscitation order (he would have a DNR order). If, however, he were in good shape and it looked reasonably certain he would continue to live after a resuscitation, then we would say to do so if his heart were to unexpectedly start.
No matter what the scenario, you are looking at doing what you believe is reasonably certain to work to preserve his life. Don’t confuse every treatment as if it will cure. Providing food and water will not cure cancer. Providing oxygen will not reverse dementia. Those things we do to provide comfort and sustenance.