Christian Principles about Life and Dying, Advance Care Options

by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
May 2014

Most families will eventually have to make health care decisions for a loved one at that person’s end-of-life. It can be a heart-wrenching time. The natural desire to see suffering end, to attend to “unfinished business,” and not “let go” can affect decision making. Emotions can cloud judgment.

For that reason, everyone can benefit by becoming familiar with some Christian principles about life and dying, advance care options, and relevant factual information.

Let’s start with some principles.

  • Human life is a precious gift from God. Every person has a duty to preserve his or her life and to use it for God’s glory.

  • We have the right to direct our own care and the responsibility to act according to the principles of Catholic moral teaching.

  • Suicide, euthanasia, and acts that intentionally and directly would cause death by deed or omission, are never morally acceptable.

  • A person may refuse medical treatment that is extraordinary because it offers little or no hope of benefit or cannot be provided without undue burden, expense, or pain.

  • There should be a strong presumption in favor of providing a person with nutrition (food) and hydration (water), even if medically assisted.

  • We have the right to comfort and to seek relief from pain, even if the method or treatment indirectly and unintentionally shortens life.

I have recently heard people say that removing or refusing non-beneficial extraordinary care is a form of killing. Surprisingly, these people also thought that this killing was “okay” because the treatment was without benefit. This is very confused thinking. Intentional and direct killing is never morally acceptable, but the removal of extraordinary treatment is not killing. It is letting a person die naturally.

In November North Dakotans will have a chance to vote on the Human Life Amendment. The amendment states: “The inalienable right to life of every human being at any stage of development must be recognized and protected.” The amendment was put on the ballot by the legislature to make clear that the North Dakota Constitution does not contain an unfettered right to abortion.

Opponents of the measure, however, are claiming that the amendment would prevent the use of advance directives and the removal of unnecessary burdensome treatments from a dying a person. The claim is completely false. For one thing, the amendment does not - and cannot - change laws about the care of persons at the end of life. Only the legislature can enact such laws. Secondly, these laws, like the prohibition against assisted suicide, prevent killing. Removing extraordinary care and the use of advance directives is not killing.

The North Dakota Catholic Conference strongly supports the Human Life Amendment and also encourages the use of advance directives, especially those that appoint a loved one to make decisions for the patient if he or she cannot speak for themselves. The amendment, which will be Measure 1 on the November ballot, does not conflict with the use advance directives.

Agents of the culture of death play upon the fears and emotions that come with the end of life. First they argued that assisted suicide and euthanasia were necessary because people could not guarantee that they would not be kept artificially alive against their wishes. But then several court cases, legislation, and the use of advance directives showed that the fear was unfounded. Then the death advocates started a misinformation campaign to convince people that, despite the law, advance directives and family instructions will not be followed. Now they want us to believe that an amendment to clarify that the state constitution does not give a right to abortion will nullify advance directives.

One way to fight the fear-mongering is to make sure you, your family, and your friends discuss what you want done if are incapacitated and facing death. Make use of the North Dakota Catholic Conference Health Care Directive. It is straightforward, short, and comes with a guide to answer frequently asked questions about the process, the law, and Catholic ethics.

The North Dakota Catholic Conference will send you as many copies as you’d like at no charge. You can also download them from our website: