Does Islam ban euthanasia? The death of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in a Paris hospital has brought this question into sharp relief. On Wednesday, a top Palestinian cleric flew to pray at his bedside, and he said that it was "impossible" for Arafat to be disconnected from life support. Various people have speculated that he was already brain dead from the hemorrhage he suffered in his brain.
Some Muslims believe emphatically that Islam bans euthanasia. Yet it is important to step back and define some important concepts and terms. First, Islam firmly upholds the sanctity of human life. The Qur'an says: "And do not take life--which God has made sacred--except for just cause..." (17:33). In another passage, God says that taking an innocent life is as if he has killed all of humanity.
Second, what exactly does euthanasia mean? According to the dictionary, euthanasia is defined as: "The act or practice of ending the life of an individual suffering from a terminal illness or an incurable condition, as by lethal injection or the suspension of extraordinary medical treatment." Yet there are a number of caveats to this definition. If, for example, someone is suffering from cancer that has spread widely across the body, but the person is not at risk of imminent death, Islam would prohibit the person from prematurely ending his or her life. If this is euthanasia, then Islam does, indeed, ban it.
If, however, a patient is critically ill, on life support, and there is no hope for meaningful recovery, Islamic law would allow the patient's family to stop or withdraw care and let nature take its course. This is not "mercy killing," but an acceptance of the fact that in this instance, medical treatment is only serving to prolong the dying process.
The same is true for a patient who has suffered severe brain injury and can only live on a ventilator and receive feedings through a stomach tube. The family can opt to withdraw care. If there is total brain death, then the machines should be turned off, because the patient is dead.
It is important to understand that Islam does not mandate that the machines be turned off in these situations. If the patient wants "everything done," that is his or her prerogative. If someone, after suffering severe brain injury, wants to subsist on a ventilator and receive artificial feeding through a stomach tube, that is completely acceptable. If, however, this sort of subsistence is unacceptable to close relatives, Islamic law allows for the family to say, "no more."
As a physician, I cannot tell you how horrible the situation is when a doctor turns to the frightened family at the bedside--with the patient in medical extremis--and asks, "Are we to do everything?" This is not a fair position to place family members.
My own experiences of taking care of critically ill patients have led me to conclude that I do not want my life prolonged on life support if there is no hope for meaningful recovery. In fact, I have specifically spelled this out in a living will: if two of my physicians independently determine that my condition is terminal and there is no hope for meaningful recovery, then I want all the machines turned off. No CPR, no mechanical ventilation, no shocks, no feeding tubes, no vasopressors. Nothing. I do not want my inevitable death prolonged by the latest medical technology. If I am going to die anyway, then let me die in peace and meet my Creator.
As we Muslims say: "To God we belong, and to Him we return."