Religion, Testamentary Documents, & End-of-Life Decisions

Wendy S. Goffe, an attorney in trusts and estates at Graham & Dunn PC in Seattle, has published Should I Stay or Should I Go? What Religion Says About Pulling the Plug,  a short piece detailing the ways in which religious convictions can affect end-of-life decisions.  The article addresses the potential religious obstacles that arise when, say, a believer drafts a living will.  For example, to insist doctors  not resort to extraordinary measures may or may not be religiously permissible. (How the title’s reference to The Clash’s hit single—a song describing confusion in a romantic relationship—from their 1982 album Combat Rock, informs this topic is a small mystery.)

The article also addresses the religious dilemmas that might face bereaved families whose loved ones have not left behind clear instructions as to what to do should they become brain dead, or even how to dispose of their bodies in the event of death—an often religiously fraught question.  Absent clear direction, families may be powerless to make the decisions they know the injured person would have preferred—or that, according to their own beliefs, they would prefer.  Even more complications can arise when end-of-life issues encounter religious belief—some of these are detailed in the abstract, which follows the jump.  Likewise, you can read the article in its entirety at Forbes.com here.

Religion can play a large role in an individual’s end-of-life decisions under a living will (also known as an advanced directive or healthcare directive). Many religions emphasize the right to die with dignity, while others advocate for the preservation of human life under almost all circumstances.

Religious beliefs not only affect a person’s end-of-life decisions, but they can also affect an individual’s decision concerning life-sustaining procedures. For instance, when a pregnant woman is injured, some religions generally give preference to the mother while others treat the lives of the baby and the mother equally. Religion can also affect decisions about organ donation, disposition of remains, and the handling of the body after death.

Unless an individual signs a living will, loved ones will have to guess about his or her wishes in the event of incapacitation. Under state laws, unless a living will exists stating otherwise, a doctor can refuse to end life-support. Most large hospitals and state departments of health provide living will forms on-line, but these forms do not express any specific religious beliefs or wishes concerning end-of-life decisions or care

—DRS, CLR Fellow

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