The Terri Schiavo case started a stampede to create living wills, which often include such instructions as, “I do not want artificial nutrition and hydration if that would be the main treatment keeping me alive.” That means no feeding tube, except as a temporary expedient.
My mother wrote such a living will a few years before she died of Alzheimer’s at 90. At the end she refused to open her mouth for food or water, consciously or not. Knowing her wishes, my sister and I were not about to force a tube down her throat.
Although death from Alzheimer’s was imminent and inevitable, the immediate cause of my mother’s death was probably dehydration (which precedes starvation). That is not uncommon at all. On the contrary, that is exactly how many if not most elderly people die if (1) they are not fortunate to die quickly and (2) they have left instructions that they do not wish to be kept alive by artificial means. Those present when my mother died said she did not appear to be in pain, though morphine would have been available if she had needed it. A morphine overdose might well have been more merciful, but laws against euthanasia leave no legal alternative to death by dehydration in many cases. Those who now bemoan death by dehydration usually admire laws against euthanasia, which is somewhat inconsistent when those are often the only two options for those who abhor prolonged artificial life support.
Many people believe themselves qualified to speak in the abstract about such matters, particularly concerning people they do not know. And they claim to view such tough choices as a clear and simple distinction between right and wrong.
I would first like to ask anyone blessed with such moral certitude if they object to living wills in principle (perhaps viewing such an Advance Medical Directive as akin to suicide). If not, I would ask if he or she could possibly imagine writing a living will for himself or herself that would instruct physicians to maintain the body by any means possible, even if the person in question was unable to move or communicate for 15 years (and potentially much longer). If they could honestly answer that question in the affirmative, I would ask how certain they are that such a fate is preferable to being buried alive with an oxygen tube and plenty of food and water.
Many who profess belief in a glorious afterlife have nonetheless become curiously agitated on behalf of clinging to the faintest semblance of life by unnatural means. This makes no theological sense unless Mrs. Schiavo is assumed to be damned, which seems a very unChristian presumption.