Ask a Franciscan

Must I Take All Medications Prescribed?

Q. My wife and I are in our early 70s and each of us has quite a few medical problems. If we stopped taking all our medications and stopped going to our many doctors, we would shorten our lives. Would the Catholic Church consider this suicide? Would it keep us out of God’s Kingdom?

A. Your letter does not indicate that any of these medical problems is currently life-threatening. The virtue of prudence indicates that you should take care of your body, using good medical care. At a certain point, you may judge that the negative side effects of a particular medication or medical treatment outweigh the good it is intended to accomplish. You are obliged neither to take every medication recommended nor to submit to every surgical procedure proposed by your doctor.

The key here is a frank and honest exchange about the pros and cons of various options. You and your wife need to explore those options and make careful decisions about them.

Over the years, the Catholic Church has chosen to speak of “ordinary” and “extraordinary” means of preserving life. Catholic theology has understood “ordinary” means as those that are required and “extraordinary” means as those that are optional.

Some medicines and surgical procedures may eventually offer little hope of addressing a particular patient’s main medical problem. The virtue of prudence means that there may come a time to say, “Enough is enough.” That same virtue, however, argues against a decision by someone in relatively good health who says, “No prescriptions of any kind, no surgeries.”

You and your wife need to talk very seriously about your wishes in this matter, in case either of you should be unable to communicate directly. You need to give your wishes legal standing through Advance Medical Directives (one for each of you). Even if you do not go into a hospital for scheduled treatment, you could find yourself there because of an accident.

Making your wishes known now to the person whom you designate to make medical decisions if you cannot do so is an expression of your love and care for your spouse. You should probably indicate a second person in case the first person is unavailable at the time such a decision needs to be made.

God, the Lord of all life, expects that we take sensible care of our bodies but not that we try to cling to life by increasingly extraordinary means. There comes a time to surrender our lives back to God. That is not suicide.

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