In the case of a terminally ill person, who should decide when to discontinue life-support systems — to "pull the plug"?

Last year I addressed eight hundred physicians at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. I was asked to address that precise question: How you decide when to pull the plug? I was also interested to note that the largest single specialty group present at that particular convocation was a group of neurosurgeons. It’s so often cast into their hands to make that decision as to when to pull the plug because they perform the examination to see if a person is brain-dead; that is, showing no signs of activity within the brain.

The questions surrounding the pulling of the plug are not simplistic. They involve the application of not one but several principles of ethics. I hesitate to give a quick answer as to an absolute time when you pull the plug and when you don’t. Who, ultimately, should make this decision? What I recommended to that body of physicians was not dictated so much by biblical law as by prudence. Such a weighty decision ought not to be made capriciously or by someone’s unilateral suggestion. It should be decided jointly. There is wisdom in much counsel, and I would say that three basic parties ought to be involved in the making of that decision. It’s a decision of such tremendous import that I think the clergy ought to be involved. It takes moral courage for a clergyman to interject himself into a family situation, but families desperately need spiritual guidance at this point, and they deserve to have a pastor help them make that decision. I think that goes with the territory of our theological background and training; we should be able to help people decide such things. But the pastor should not make it unilaterally. He should be in deep consultation with the family and with the physician.

The medical aspects of life-support systems are so technical and complex that we need the input of the medical experts in order to make a sound evaluation of the situation. So these three parties—the family, the physician, and the clergy—need to be involved in the decision.

© 1996 by R.C. Sproul. Used by permission of Tyndale.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. ©1982 by Thomas Nelson.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.