Helga Wanglie, 87 years old, lies in a coma in a Minneapolis hospital, breathing with a respirator. The doctor’s told Helga’s family she would never recover, and asked permission to turn off the respirator though they knew that meant she would die.
Helga’s family refused.
Normally, that would have been the end of it. Doctors typically defer to family members in decisions to remove life support equipment. Before falling ill, Helga had expressed her own wishes clearly: She wanted all measures taken to preserve life. A devout Christian, Helga believed “only He who gives life has the right to take it.”
The Wanglies wanted to respect Helga’s convictions. But the hospital staff didn’t. And they did something completely unprecedented: They went to court to force the Wanglies to turn off Helga’s respirator–in spite of their personal and religious convictions.
It was a 180-degree switch from previous cases. In the highly publicized case of Nancy Cruzan, it was her parents who went to court, saying Nancy had a right to die. And it was the hospital that resisted.
The hospital was supported by prolife activists, who warned that the so-called right to die might turn into a duty to die. The sick and the old might be pressured to move along and stop using up scarce medical resources.
Nancy’s parents, on the other hand, were supported by right-to-life activists, who posed as great champions of family rights. Kate Michelman (who is also an abortion activist) said families should be free to make medical decisions without moralistic outsiders–like prolifers–looking over their shoulders.
“Who are these people,” Michelman asked, “to suggest they know what’s best for families in a health crisis?”
Well, “these people” in the Wanglie case are not prolifers. They’re doctors. Just as prolifers predicted, the right to die is turning into an obligation to die–when other people decide it’s time.
The doctors decided it was time for Helga Wanglie. Fortunately, the court stopped them–ruling that the legal right to make the decision lay with Helga’s husband.
Exactly three days later, Helga died of natural causes. It’s almost as though God let her live just long enough to make a point: that life and death are in His hands, not a hospital’s.
Helga is gone now, but the issue will be with us a long time. This was the first attempt by doctors to take decision-making power out of the hands of families. But it won’t be the last.
And if they ever succeed, the outcome could be frightening. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they began killing the old and handicapped long before they built concentration camps. It was done in hospitals–by doctors.
The German doctors had rejected the historic Christian ethic that says all human life is created in the image of God. And they had substituted a utilitarian ethic that says people who can’t contribute to society are not worthy to live.
You say it can’t happen here?
Unfortunately, it can. The Wanglie case was just the first salvo. The battle has now begun and there will be powerful pressures, economic and social, to let hospitals and doctors, not families–and certainly not the Sovereign Lord–make life-and-death decisions.
And that is frighteningly reminiscent of one of the ugliest chapters in modern history–a chapter we thought ended with the Nuremburg trials.