I’ve been trying to keep up with the health care debate since it is a pretty big issue, and there’s been one tactic that has me a bit worried. It seems that both sides are obsessed with extending a person’s lifespan:
- Democrats, including President Obama, cite the average lifespan of Americans compared to other nations, saying that we need to make changes in order to live longer.
- Republicans are using the term “death panels” to describe end-of-life counseling, with the assumption that any sort of end-of-life counseling that leads someone to decide to decline any sort of care and die at a younger age would be a bad thing.
We desperately need a theology of death. So, please take this theologically, not politically.
Health care should be about more than extending life; it needs as its goal to increase the quality of life. “My Old Lady” is one of my favorite episodes of the TV show Scrubs because it deals so well with the topic of death, especially with the “old lady” character. I’ve put Part 2 of that episode below, because it deals with the most pertinent part of the show (you can also view Part 1 and Part 3).
Money quote from this episode (occurs at 1:21 in the above clip):
J.D. (Doctor): “So, that’s basically it. Your kidneys aren’t responding to the medication anymore. I’m afraid we’re gonna have to start you on dialysis.”
Mrs. Tanner: “Oh, I’m not a big fan of dialysis.”
J.D.: “Yeah, unfortunately we don’t really have a choice.”
Mrs. Tanner: “Well, actually, I do have a choice.”
J.D looks confused.
J.D.’s In-head Narration: Certain things you never expect to come out of a person’s mouth.
Mrs. Tanner: “I think I’m ready to die.”
Now, I’m not advocating that people should die just to save money on health care costs. But I am saying that people’s lives should not always be extended at all costs. Yes, the individual person is the one who ultimately needs to be making that decision, but we as a culture do need to help people be prepared for death. Perhaps it is healthier to be prepared for death and die younger than it is to be afraid of death and constantly try to delay the inevitable.
Both sides need to own up to the fact that death is a part of life. Neither side needs to be scaring people by using death to persuade others that their form of health care will keep people alive longer.
What if part of the health care debate is getting people ready to die? Yet again, we see a point where churches can step in and offer our culture the proper perspective rather than turning over our responsibility to one political party or another. The church should be in the death business because we worship a God who is in the resurrection business. May we help our country develop a proper theology of death and reorient the health care debate.
[For further thoughts, go here to listen to Stanley Hauerwas on medicine, death, and the Christian community. Also, if you were looking for a practical solution, sorry, I don’t have one. Instead, go see Adam McLane’s idea for fixing health care.]