Should You Have a Living Will? A Christian Lawyer's Perspective
- Thursday, September 11, 2008
The living will arose as a way to address some of these issues.
Over the period of a decade or so, most states adopted a living-will statute, including definitions of the relevant terms, subject, of course, to further interpretation by the courts. The typical living-will law enables individuals to create legally binding written expressions of their wishes, to be relied upon in the event they should ever slip into an unconscious condition from which no significant recovery is deemed realistically possible by the appropriate medical professionals. Often the living will includes the appointment of a surrogate, or agent, to serve as an advocate for the implementation of the preferences of the unconscious person, as expressed in the written document.
Most living wills request that all further life-sustaining treatment be withdrawn in the event of terminal, permanent unconsciousness. Many also include provisions that medications to keep the unconscious person “comfortable” and free from severe pain should continue to be administered, despite the cessation of other treatments. Obviously, the direct result of following the instructions set forth in most living wills is clinical death of the patient.
Now, the reason I feel it necessary to address the issues surrounding living wills is not so much the typical situation described above, although as a believer in God’s ultimate sovereignty I do have some personal misgivings about even standard living wills (as of this writing, I do not have a living will in force for myself). However, I would be the first to admit that thoughtful Christians hold very diverse views on this subject, and that many denominations and individual churches have studied these issues at great length, many concluding that the standard living-will concept is entirely acceptable from the perspective of Scripture and Christian ethics.
My fundamental concern about living wills arises not from their use as initially envisioned, but rather from the common misuse, misapplication, and misunderstanding of the living-will concept. I believe that God views human life as a sacred thing. However, there are many groups and individuals within our culture who do not share that view. These forces manifest themselves in various ways at various times. Sometimes they act very publicly and boldly, such as through the infamous “assisted suicides” of Dr. Kevorkian or through embracing the horrific practices of partial-birth abortion. But sometimes they act very quietly and subtly. And because, on the surface at least, the living will sounds so reasonable, so innocuous, so acceptable, I believe that those who would actively promote an agenda of death have co-opted the living will concept to cloak themselves in respectability, as they continue to work to undermine the traditional Christian view of human life as a sacred thing.
Here is what I have observed over my years of practice. This is not based on any empirical study, just my observation. I sense there has been a general shift in perception, such that rather than the living will being viewed as something to be thoughtfully, prayerfully, and reluctantly relied upon only after the passage of substantial time and extensive review and consultation with attending physicians, other medical personnel, and loved ones, I now see the living will being viewed as something that should be acted upon in extreme haste, in the very heat of the onset of a medical crisis, before anyone can really discern how permanent or lasting the condition in question will be.
I observe this troubling attitude manifested in clients who ask about carrying their living wills on their person “in case we get in an accident;” I observe it manifested in any number of stories I’ve heard of medical personnel (from doctors and nurses to ambulance crews) treating patients with living wills in the same manner as they would a patient with a “Do Not Resuscitate” order on the medical chart (a Do Not Resucitate order, sometimes called a DNR, is a special standing order to medical personnel not to take any emergency life saving measures under any circumstances, and is normally utilized by a patient who is already very ill); and I observe it manifested in the popular press, where reporters seem to perpetuate these misconceptions about the proper purpose of the living will.
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