The NSW & ACT Baptist Churches produced a statement on the Ethics of Life Sustaining Treatment in the mid-1990’s. While it should be read in light of the fact that it is 20 years old, it highlights a number of the critical issues in this general area.
The ethics of limiting life-sustaining treatment: a Christian perspective
Compassion should be shown for the sick and action taken to share fairly resources and directly meet individual health and other needs. Human life is to be greatly valued but it is not necessarily required that it be extended beyond its natural end. Extraordinarily expensive life-sustaining treatment may be beyond the capacity of Government and non-governmental agencies to bear without taking from others in need. Within the framework of equitable distribution of resources for health care, individual decisions on life-sustaining treatment should allow room for a patient, family, doctor and religious adviser, to the extent possible, to decide together on the desirable extent of life-sustaining treatment.
- The nature of life-sustaining treatment
- Much of medical treatment deals with threats to life and health. Means to sustain life may range from food for the starving, to a curative drug for a life threatening disease, to intensive care treatment. New expensive technologies are now available to sustain life, though often not good health, through means such as prolonged mechanical ventilation of the lungs, continuous electronic monitoring and correction of the activity of the heart, and intensive monitoring and intravenous correction of fluid, electrolyte and nutrition requirements.
- Compassion and care for the sick
- Jesus Christ’s ministry of healing indicates God’s direct concern for suffering and the need for compassion and care for the sick.
- Jesus Christ and his early followers recognised that inequality exists and that there is a requirement for direct action to redistribute resources and directly meet people’s needs. One need is to sustain life and health.
- Expense but limited resources
- Resources from Government and non-government agencies for health care and to meet individual need are not inexhaustible. Extraordinarily expensive life-sustaining treatment may be beyond their capacity to bear without taking resources of finance and helpers which may be of better effect in helping others in need.
- The means and purposes of healing and welfare
- Healing and giving to those in need is part of Christian ministry. There is no instruction in Christian scripture to use extraordinary means, apart from the power of God, to sustain life. These were not available. The emphasis is on spiritual welfare by healing of the whole person including relationship with God.
- The value of life
- Human life is of immeasurably great value. The unjustified taking of human life is forbidden. Compassion suggests that where possible resources should be given to assist those in need. Compassion does not necessarily, however, require the sustaining of life beyond its natural end, where this would cause distress, have no apparent benefits to the person’s welfare and take resources for health and welfare from those apparently in greater need.
- There is no rule for all situations. The above principles may, however, be helpful for health planners, advisers and individuals in their decisions on what facilities should be provided and what care given. A person receiving life-sustaining treatment may not have the knowledge, ability to communicate, or current fitness of mind to make a decision on treatment. Others involved – relatives, friends, health care staff and ethicists, may have conflicting interests. Within the framework of equitable resource provision, individual decisions on life-sustaining treatment should allow room for a patient, family, medical adviser and religious adviser, to the extent possible, to achieve together the best result on the desirable extent of life-sustaining treatment.
- Biblical references
- Christ’s ministry of healing and his authority to heal given to the twelve apostles indicates God’s concern for suffering: Luke 6:6-10; 8:47-50; 9:1-2.
- Christ emphasised spiritual welfare when healing: Luke 5:17-26; 18:42-43.
- There should be justice for the oppressed: Psalm 103:6; Isaiah 1:17; Luke 4:18.
- Those in need should not be overlooked: Psalm 68:5; Psalm 146:7-9; Acts 6:1-6.
- A neighbour (anyone in need who we are able to help) is to be loved and helped as oneself: Leviticus 19:18; Luke 10:25-37.
- Inequality should be remedied by giving to the, poor: Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30.
- Human life is to be greatly valued: Exodus 20:13.
- There is a time for all things: Ecclesiastes 3:1-9.
- Other References
- McEwan J., “The 1988 Rendle Short Lecture: Public health and personal care: The challenge of uncertainty”, Journal of the Christian Medical Fellowship, October 1989, 16-23.
- National Health and Medical Research Council, Discussion Paper on the Ethics of Limiting Life-sustaining Treatment (Canberra: NH&MRC, November 1988).
In the light of the above and the growing debate on the availability of Euthanasia, the Baptist Churches of NSW and ACT:
- Deplore the ignorance and lack of resources which doom many to avoidable suffering. We call upon the State and Federal Governments to ensure that the best Palliative care is available to all who need it;
- Acknowledge and grieve for the distress and pain of those with severe physical and mental disability and illness and of those who care for them. We resolve to support them with love, compassion and practical care. We acknowledge that this will often mean sacrifice of both time and life style;
- Call upon all Christians to be aware of the needs of those least able to protect themselves – i.e. the very young and the very old, those with physical and mental disabilities, the ill, the confused and the lonely and resolve to be ready to act as advocates for them whenever necessary.
- Call upon all Christians to be informed and involved in the community debate about euthanasia and we resolve at all times to seek the mind of Christ and the guidance of the Spirit in our personal and corporate views;
- Believe that human life is a gift from God and it is His alone to give and take away. We resolve to inform governments that attempts to alter the law to allow legal euthanasia should be resisted in the light of the above;
- Deplore the action of the Northern Territory legislature in introducing legal euthanasia. We urge them to reconsider their action.