Is the removal of life support allowed by the Orthodox Church?
This is a difficult question, and we should probably start by making clear the position of the Church on euthanasia. The word euthanasia means 'good death', and today this word is normally used to describe the voluntary ending of life by means of lethal injection. Euthanasia is unacceptable to the Orthodox Church as it is a form of suicide. Euthanasia by medical intervention is illegal in the UK, but hospitals have sometimes performed it by not feeding patients that were capable of eating and/or drinking; this practice is euthanasia and is not permitted by the Church.
On the other hand, many patients with advanced cancer are actually killed by their medical treatment because the painkillers that they are given eventually suppress the respiratory system. This is not euthanasia, but merely a side effect of the drugs needed to keep the patient comfortable. In addition, medical staff may decide that if a patient has no hope of recovery, it is not in their best interest to start painful and distressing life-support treatment. The issues surrounding the withdrawal of medical treatment are more complicated.
Seriously ill patients who are unable to breathe unaided are placed on a machine called a ventilator which breathes for them. The ventilator provides a vital life support system for the patient, but in certain cases doctors may advise that this life support be withdrawn. The Orthodox Church would not consider this sinful, but in making this decision we need to combine the advice of the doctors with prayer because the issue is far from straightforward. For example, some patients suffering from ‘locked-in syndrome’ or in a deep coma have made a full recovery after families refused to remove life support.
Medical staff may advise removing intravenous or naso-gastral feeding if they think that a paralysed patient who is able to breathe unaided has no hope of recovery. This is a more complex problem than allowing the removal of artificial ventilation because in making this decision doctors are denying the patient nutrition. However, although artificial feeding supports life, the Church does not demand that we prolong life by every means. Indeed, artificially feeding a terminally ill patient who is unable to eat actually increases suffering by causing a number of painful medical complications. Removing artificial feeding allows a natural death so it does not amount to euthanasia.
Orthodox Christians understand that death is inevitable and we need to be prepared for it and provide the necessary support to the medical staff and ensure that we pray for, and care for, our relative. However, taking a decision regarding withdrawal of life support or artificial feeding on behalf of a dying relative is, by its very nature, a difficult one and needs to be taken after discussion with a spiritual father.