Should You Have a Living Will? A Christian Lawyer's Perspective
- Thursday, September 11, 2008
You shall not murder.—Exodus 20:13
Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD.—Leviticus 19:32
Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone.—Psalm 71:9
Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.
As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children—with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.—Psalm 103:13–18
Living wills are documents specifically designed to express our wishes and desires for health care treatment in the event we can no longer communicate for ourselves and we have deteriorated into a terminal condition of permanent unconsciousness (often referred to as a “persistent vegetative state”).
Sometimes, you will hear living wills called “advance directives,” and the terms are synonymous.
Each state has its own laws about living wills, so some of the particulars will vary from state to state, such as exactly how we are to define “permanent unconsciousness.” Now and then, certain court cases make headlines as families and other interested parties wrangle over the precise meanings of some of the key terms. But, as a whole, living wills are quite commonly utilized, usually without incident or dispute.
Before addressing the concerns I have as a Christian attorney with respect to living wills and their uses and possible misuses, let me very quickly discuss the background of how the living will arose. As medical science advanced in the last century, our society experienced a new phenomenon for the first time—individuals with normally fatal injuries and illnesses could sometimes be kept physically alive with the assistance of technology. But if the technology were removed or withdrawn, these individuals would quickly die.
In most instances, the new medical technology was a very good thing. Accident victims could be kept alive until their injuries healed. Victims of certain illnesses, such as kidney disease, could lead years and years of productive life by relying on machines to perform the functions that would ordinarily have been performed by their now-damaged organs. The list goes on and on.
But in some cases, usually where the individual in question had suffered some type of severe brain damage, a new ethical problem arose. What if medical technology could keep a person’s body alive indefinitely? What if that person’s brain was no longer capable of the functions associated with living or “consciousness”? Now what? Was the person really alive? Was the person actually dead, even though many parts of his or her body were still functioning?
Who would have the right to define the meaning of the new term brain dead?
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