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Making Life Or Death Choices

Mal Fletcher
Posted 25 October 2004
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When is it right to let a child die? If we're developing the technology to keep people alive, surely we should accept the responsibility that this brings with it; in particular, the responsibility to give the young a fighting chance.

Two weeks ago, a British judge ruled that baby Charlotte Wyatt can be left to die if she stops breathing. A few days later, another judge ruled that baby Luke Winston-Jones should be allowed to die if his condition worsens.

It was deemed that it is not in the babies' best interests to be kept alive using artificial means. In both cases, though, the parents were prepared to fight for the lives of their children in court. Both cases have opened to question the right of hospital authorities, and even the courts themselves, to determine the fate of very sick children.

Doctors in baby Luke's case told the court that he suffers from Edwards's syndrome, a debilitating chromosome abnormality. He also has a hole in the heart. His outlook, they said, is extremely poor.

Luke's mother, Ruth Winston-Jones, believes that the medical profession gave up on her son too early. When he was five weeks old they refused to operate on his heart because of his condition. She says they told her there was no point going ahead with an operation, as Luke would die before long.

'I said at the time: "What if he does live?"' she recalls. 'And they said: "Come back to us then." We have and they have refused.'

'Luke is a true survivor. He is a happy little boy who is 100 per cent capable of feeling and giving love.'

'Children with Edwards's syndrome do survive and I am in contact with families whose children have lived into their twenties and thirties.'

Babies who have Edwards's syndrome have an average lifespan of less than two months. Fewer than 10 per cent live for more than a year. Yet the question begs to be asked: 'What if Luke is one of those 10 per cent?'

These cases highlight again one of the great moral dilemmas of our time. We have the technological ability to preserve life even against amazing odds. Yet, as a result, we have more people than ever relying on emergency resources which are sometimes stretched to the limit.

The people who administer these resources face some unenviable questions: do we treat everybody, and if so for how long? At what point do we draw the line and say, 'enough is enough; it's time to let go and let nature take its course'?

In a world of technological wonders, it's time to face up to one great truth: with greater power comes increased responsibility, both for individuals and for society as a whole. If we don't want to take responsibility we should not accept the power.

In this area, we ignore at our peril the lessons of history and the moral constraints of our religious heritage.

In terms of history, human society has generally faced life and death choices by siding with those whom it has considered to be its 'weaker' members.

For example, wartime attacks on women and children have traditionally been labelled as atrocities, and when major disasters have struck, every effort has been made to save women and children first.

On the religious front, much of Europe's cultural heritage has been drawn from the Christian faith. In fact, for a long time, Europe defined itself using the term 'Christendom'.

The Christian Bible calls on us to protect and defend the weak, the poor, the sick and the young. It says we should take the side of the humble, for this is what God does.

Without making difficult judgments seem simple or heavy matters trite, there are perhaps some basic questions that can help guide us through the minefield of life and death issues.

The first is this: how will our present choices affect future generations?

Bill Wilson, the evangelist to children, says: 'It's not important what you accomplish in life. It's what you set in motion that counts.'

Christianity teaches that we reap in this life exactly what we sow. By our actions and choices in the present we are setting a new world in motion for future generations.

Will they curse our choices and us for making them? Or, worse still, will they blindly add to our mistakes?

Future generations will use our choices as their precedent. The question is: will it be a precedent for good or not -- especially given that our children's children will possess even more potent technologies?

A second helpful question relates to the core of Christian teaching. What would we have others do to us if we were in the same situation?

If I were a small child fighting for my life, how would I want to be treated? No, small children cannot reason things out in that way, but the principle is still valid. Besides, babies are capable of knowing that they're loved. Would you rather be shown love, or not?

A third question might be: what cause of action is the most God-like? I don't mean God-like in terms of what we have to power to do; rather, what righteousness, justice, mercy and compassion -- the major attributes of God's character -- would have us do.

According to the Bible, we can endeavour to think in a godly way without playing God. In fact, godly behaviour may be the one thing that keeps us from abusing our power.

Finally, difficult ethical questions should perhaps be faced with a healthy dose of accountability – and not simply accountability to the law or to society, but to God.

In the biblical scheme of things, each of us will one day appear before God for his appraisal of our lives. This seems unpalatable to our postmodern tastes. We prefer to believe that we are free agents, without any need for a higher authority.

Perhaps, though, the traditional view is more helpful when it comes to ethics. It says that we cannot simply take decisions based on expediency or, worse still, economic viability. We must consider the fact that our actions – and the motives behind them – will be held up to higher scrutiny.

How do we wish to appear before God? This question alone might help us keep our worst impulses in check – and keep us from giving up on the lives of those who rely upon us most.

© Mal Fletcher 2004
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