The breath of life in all human beings is a gift from God (Genesis 2:7) and thus inherently holy. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has pledged to protect the sanctity of human life and to safeguard its nature from womb to tomb.

Throughout the 20th century and continuing today, medical technology has developed systems that enable physicians to more effectively care for their patients and save lives that would otherwise result in death. However, this technology has also resulted in the possibility of prolonging the dying process beyond its normal course. This often causes great suffering, not only for the patient but also for the family, friends and caregivers.

Such technology raises moral questions. For example, is it moral to withdraw a life-support system that is believed to be extending the dying process rather than providing therapeutic benefit? The NAE believes that in cases where patients are terminally ill, death appears imminent and treatment offers no medical hope for recovery, it is morally appropriate to request the withholding or withdrawal of life-support systems, allowing natural death to occur. In such cases, every effort should be made to keep the patient free of pain and suffering, with emotional and spiritual support being provided until the patient dies.

Appropriate action for allowing natural death is best taken where there is guidance from a signed health care directive (also known as a living will) and/or designated health care agent (also known as a durable power of attorney). Where there is no health care directive or agent, the decision to withhold or withdraw life support should be made by the dying patient’s family, legal guardian, or closest friends in consultation with the medical professionals and, when available, a member of the clergy.

The NAE affirms the Uniform Determination of Death Act (1980), which defines death as either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.[1] The withholding or withdrawal of extraordinary life-support systems to allow natural death at this time is not only morally appropriate, but compelling.

Death is a significant transition that we all ultimately face. The physical and emotional suffering that may precede death can be a very grievous experience. While we firmly believe in mercy, compassion, and allowing natural death, we also believe there is a profound moral distinction between allowing a person to die, on the one hand, and killing on the other. As evangelicals, we deny that there are any circumstances that justify euthanasia; that is, intentionally ending a life through medical intervention. One should be wary of the many euphemisms for assisted suicide such as “physician-assisted death,” “aid in dying,” “death with dignity,” and the like.

Instead of supporting legislation allowing physician assisted suicide, we as evangelicals should focus our energies on improving care for the dying and ensuring access to high-quality palliative or hospice care to alleviate needless suffering. We should further advocate within our churches for responsible advance care planning. It has proven to be much less morally distressing to family members when they are clear on their loved ones’ wishes for end-of-life care, and are spiritually validated for honoring that person’s desires.

[1] The Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) was created by the Uniform Law Commissioners (ULC), in cooperation with the American Medical Association, American Bar Association, and the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1980).