Cancer destroys (too) many lives. Most of us know someone who has struggled or is struggling with some form of cancer; some of our readers are perhaps dealing with it right now. In this context, the question sometimes arises: should I undergo or forgo chemotherapy? This is a tough question to answer for everyone involved. There are no easy answers and it takes biblical wisdom, prayer, and counsel to come to a conclusion. I appreciate David VanDrunen’s notes on this in his book, Bioethics and the Christian Life. The following specifically has to do with the choice to forgo more chemo when it is an end of life issue.
“Actively bringing about a person’s death – by drowning, lethal injection, or whatever – is quite simply not the same thing as deciding not to intervene when something else is bringing death upon a person. One of the most important reasons why this is the case is that death is a force that exists independent of human agency. Despite the pretensions of modern medical technology, human beings did not invent death nor can they eliminated it.”
“…Another consideration that may help us to appreciate the moral distinction between killing and letting die is the fact that with the former we are necessarily aiming at death as our goal while with the latter this is not necessarily (and usually not) the case. To kill – that is, to actively take someone’s life – is by definition to choose death, whether this be done out of wicked or merciful motives.”
“To let an ill person die (ourselves or another), however, may well be to choose not death but one form of life over another. A person’s choice to forgo an additional round of chemotherapy when her cancer is evidently a terminal case is probably not a choice to die. The fact of death has already been decided, apart from the cancer victim’s will. Instead, the choice to forgo more chemotherapy may be a decision to live a somewhat shorter life than the chemotherapy might make possible, but a shorter life that is free from the debilitating burden of chemotherapy and that enables the person to enjoy her remaining life far more – to finish projects, to spend time with loved ones, and to get her house in order. It is not necessarily a choice between life and death, therefore, but a choice between one kind of life and another kind of life (210-211).
VanDrunen goes on to say that we always make choices about various kinds of life – some choices even increase the chance that our lives will be shorter. For example, by choosing to drive a car each day, our lives might be shorter than if we would not drive. Also, if someone chooses to be a firefighter, he knows his life might be shorter than if he’d become a school teacher, “yet no one would claim that such a career decision is a choice of death over life” (Ibid.). This discussion may not answer all our questions, but it does help when we come face to face with end of life situations.
If you want to learn more about Christian bioethics – beginning of life and end of life ethics specifically – I highly recommend this book: Bioethics and the Christian Life.