The case of Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged Florida woman who has been on life support for over a decade, has reopened debate by secular and church authorities alike on questions surrounding euthanasia or "mercy killing."

The matter is admittedly not simple. But the Christian church has, at least until recent decades, spoken on it with a fairly unified voice.

Here as in other issues related to human life and sexuality, the Roman Catholic Church has done a good job of defining and sticking by its official position. On the other hand, at the grassroots, more conservative Protestants than Catholics or any other group of Christians have taken an uncompromising position against euthanasia—to put it in the language of the Catholic Catechism, "an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering."

But we must make a quick distinction: Almost all Christians have set aside as a special category cases of terminal illness in which treatment is ended in the face of inevitable death. The United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline states, "The use of medical technologies to prolong terminal illnesses requires responsible judgment about when life-sustaining treatments truly support the goals of life, and when they have reached their limits. There is no moral or religious obligation to use these when they impose undue burdens or only extend the process of dying."

In "Allowing Death and Taking Life: Withholding or Withdrawing Artificially Administered Nutrition and Hydration," the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America classes artificial nutrition and hydration as "medical treatment," not basic care. In cases where such treatment becomes futile and burdensome, says the document, "it may ...

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