We all die. Physical death is a certainty for all of us, unless we happen to be one of those believers who “are alive and remain” at the time of the rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:15). As the psalmist put it, “Who can live and not see death, or who can escape the power of the grave?” (Psalm 89:48). Because of death’s certainty, it is good to be prepared for it. As part of their preparation, many people have made out advance directives in the form of either a living will or durable power of attorney for health care.
The Bible does not mention living wills or the durable power of attorney for health care, but it does present some examples of people who planned ahead. When King Hezekiah was ill and “at the point of death,” God sent the prophet Isaiah to him with a message: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover’” (Isaiah 38:1). The king did not summon a lawyer and make out a living will or assign durable power of attorney, but he was told to prepare for the day of his death. Today, having some form of advance directive in place could be considered part of “putting one’s house in order.”
We should make a distinction between a living will and durable power of attorney for health care. A living will is a legal document that gives instructions to a physician in regards to life-prolonging health care treatments. In the event that a person is incapacitated or cannot speak for himself, a living will relates that person’s wishes to withhold or withdraw medical treatment. Living wills do not take effect until the designator is suffering from a terminal illness or is permanently unconscious with no hope of recovery. Such conditions must usually be verified by another physician, and a living will exempts the doctor(s) making the choice to “pull the plug” from all liability.
Durable power of attorney for health care, on the other hand, gives the authority to make decisions regarding health care to a family member or trusted friend. That is, someone other than a doctor has the right to make decisions concerning medical treatment. Sometimes the durable power of attorney for health care is called a “will to live” document or a “protective medical decisions” document.
Pro-life Christian groups recommend the latter document over a living will, on the basis that a loved one will be more likely to have one’s best interests at heart. A living will tends to regulate how to end a life, whereas a person with durable power of attorney for health care will be more concerned with saving a life. With society’s growing acceptance of euthanasia, it would seem wiser to entrust a loved one with such life-and-death decisions. A doctor empowered by a living will may or may not share one’s view of life’s sanctity. Plus, phrases within a living will such as “artificial means,” “heroic measures,” and “terminal” are open to a disturbingly wide range of interpretations.
The end of life can be a complicated time. Many people face questions about what type of treatment to pursue, whether or not to even seek treatment, and how to weigh the risks against the benefits of each course of action. A living will or a will to live document can help a person and his or her family sort through such questions before the time comes. Such a document can be a great benefit to a person’s health care proxy—the difficult decisions have already been made, and all that remains is to respect the wishes of the designator.