I was out to dinner with some girlfriends when the phone calls started coming in. It was the Friday night before Father’s Day. My dad had a severe fever and accelerated heart rate. They thought he had pneumonia. The shift nurse at his nursing home asked me what I wanted to do. His doctor said he needed to get to the ER quickly, if that’s what I wanted. My vision blurred and my throat tightened as it dawned on me that they were asking me if I wanted him to get help or if I wanted to let him slip away.
“Take him to the ER, please. I’ll be there right away,” I answered. I tried to compose myself as I said goodbye to my girlfriends and asked my husband to drive me to the hospital. I did not feel ready at all to say goodbye to my dad. And I was especially unwilling to allow pneumonia to take him forever without at least a fight.
Upon his admittance he received antibiotics and intravenous fluids to get him hydrated and his fever down. Thankfully, his body responded quickly and his life didn’t hang in the balance for more than a night. In the end, the life-saving measures were actually quite simple. He’s now fully recovered and doesn’t even remember his hospitalization. But I do. And the questions of when and how to let a loved one die are on my mind every day.
The thing is, I am vehemently pro-life, but I’m not anti-death. I am anti-artificial-death. And I’m most definitely anti-premature-death. Yet I sense that in society at large, Christians like me are seen as extreme. In a state like Colorado where it’s legal to get an abortion through 40 weeks of pregnancy and it’s possible for terminally ill residents to end their lives with a prescription suicide, my views of protecting all life are thought to be backwards and lacking compassion. Most Coloradans have been convinced that ending life both in the womb and in the nursing home is actually taking the moral high ground.
Here’s what’s true: when societies decide that life isn’t worth protecting from conception to natural death, all kinds of exceptions begin to be made and ultimately, no one is safe. From Belgium to the Netherlands to Oregon, we see the progression. First, aid in dying is provided to people with terminal diagnoses and then it’s extended to people with hopeless diagnoses. Or assistance is given to those who have extreme physical pain, but eventually granted to those in mental pain. And even age—at first it’s only for adults and then eventually children can get help ending their lives.
A recent study highlights just how slippery the slopes are. In 2015 in the Netherlands, 5,500 people were given aid in dying, but 431 were assisted in suicide without their consent. The sheer number of people who pursued medical suicide is breathtakingly high, but the fact that 431 lives were ended without consent illustrates how death-centered a society can become.
In Oregon, the number of people pursuing assisted suicide increases by 12% every year. Studies show that three out of four people pursuing medical suicide are depressed. Clearly, the reasons and parameters for medical aid in dying widen once the gates are opened. Eventually we prioritize autonomy in death over the loss of autonomy in life.
It’s crazy to me that I could have let my dad slip away that night and argued that keeping penicillin from him was a compassionate choice. Even now, here in Colorado, I could pursue ending his life artificially. While there are indeed safeguards today that would require multiple witnesses and doctors’ opinions, precedence says they won’t be here tomorrow. Death is not the enemy, but care that devalues life and brings it to an artificial, early end is.