Biathanatos Revisited: Anabaptist Perspectives on Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking in the Face of Terminal Illness
Aubrey DeVeny Incorvaia, PhD (c), MPP, Georgia Institute of Technology
Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking (VSED) is a legal means of hastening death through refusal of food and fluids – a topic rarely addressed in Christian Protestantism. Among this group, U.S. Mainline Protestants comprise nearly 15% of the population and are more likely to include social moderates and liberals who emphasize quality of life (over mere life) and may therefore be open to the practice. Thus, this case study of one southern Anabaptist congregation employs a focus group and one-on-one interviews, capturing reactions to a hypothetical vignette in which a fellow parishioner intends to VSED in the face of ongoing suffering from a terminal illness. Leveraging the well-established and validated Theory of Planned Behavior – that posits a person’s intentions to carry out an action are motivated by one’s attitude, perception of subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control – this research elucidates clergy and congregants’ normative beliefs and anticipated tactical support for VSED, including their reactions to Christian-based justifications for this end-of-life option. Such reasoning includes that VSED is a “fast into eternal life” and is based on the example of Jesus Christ, who, in the face of ongoing suffering, determined the end of his own life when he stated, “It is finished,” and gave up his spirit – an insight originally argued by John Donne in Biathanatos (1647). In response to the presented vignette, study participants reported their affirmation of VSED. They unanimously relayed a willingness to participate in a farewell visit with the hypothetical parishioner before the VSED process would begin, but professed uncertain and conditional involvement in respite care provision post VSED initiation. Responses to faith-based justifications for the practice varied widely. Individuals aiming to VSED in the face of terminal illness may have their intention affirmed by a church community, but will likely require additional caregiving support to achieve a hastened death.