A woman hospitalized with leukemia wants the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane to let her use its quarters for doctor-assisted suicide - a practice that remains illegal.
For the time being, the church has denied the request by Democratic Party activist Betty Drumheller but promises to pursue the issue. Its minister approves of the right to assisted suicide, criminal or not.
A ranking member of the church’s national justice committee, meanwhile, commends the Spokane congregation for its decision to deny the request.
“The church itself could be very vulnerable,” says Rev. William Gardiner of Boston. “I would imagine they’re going to have to do some serious discussing with lawyers and people in the state government.”
The recent handwritten request pushes the Spokane church to the forefront of one of the nation’s most emotional debates: Is physician-assisted suicide ethical? It also forces the local church to confront an issue it’s debated only at a leisurely pace.
Ralph Mero, a Unitarian minister and former director of a Seattle group that advocates assisted suicide, says no church has ever faced such a request.
“It’d be the first time,” Mero says. “It will be a new thing for them to talk about.”
Drumheller, a 64-year-old Deer Park resident and former Democratic National Committeewoman, recently was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia.
Drumheller’s doctor says there’s at least a 50 percent chance chemotherapy at Sacred Heart Medical Center will send the disease into remission.
Just in case, she wants a plan in place to end her life on her terms.
She’s hoping the West Spokane church will provide a safety barrier from authorities who might try to stop her or anyone helping her.
Drumheller wants her church death to be an event, featuring friends, music and champagne. She doesn’t want a lonely death tucked away in a bed somewhere.
They’d think twice before barging into a sanctuary to make arrests, she reasons.
“Cops could bust into a house and drag someone out easily,” agrees Rob Neils, a Drumheller friend and president of Dying Well Network, a Spokane group that advocates assisted suicide.
“It’d be a whole lot harder to break the church-state barrier than the private property barrier.”
The Unitarians didn’t say no immediately. First they called an emergency meeting.
Then, in a letter dated Thursday and signed by the board president, Drumheller’s request was refused.
The fear of arrest wasn’t intimidating, says the Rev. David Parke, the church’s interim minister.
The social justice committee that received Drumheller’s June 5 letter simply didn’t feel it could speak for the whole church. Nor did the board of directors. There’s no process in place for making such a monumental decision, church members say.
“Until we have a mechanism for making congregation-wide decisions, we cannot take the step proposed,” says Parke, speaking for the church.
Speaking for himself, Parke says he suspects the church will ultimately allow doctor-assisted suicides in the building. That’s his hope.
At the least, it’s an act of compassion and hospitality, Parke says.
“I’m more concerned about the church embracing (Drumheller) in her brokenness than I am about the church being held harmless for breaking the law,” he says.
Elva Willingham, co-chairwoman of the social justice committee, plans to study the issue and act as a church liaison to Dying Well Network.
“It’s something I need to explore personally,” says Willingham. “If I chose physician-assisted suicide, I know I wouldn’t want it in the back of a van.”
Drumheller’s request for sanctuary points out a need for the church to take a stronger stand on the issue, says Gardiner, co-director of the national Unitarian diversity and justice committee in Boston.
An existing national resolution calls for the “right to self-determination in dying” and release from civil and criminal consequences in suicides of the terminally ill, he says.
But the 1988 resolution doesn’t offer outright support of physician-assisted suicide, Gardiner says.
“It hints at it,” he says. “We’d probably be better served to have language that’s more clear and specific.”
Unitarian officials in Spokane say they expect some members to argue against sanctuary for people planning assisted suicides.
Drumheller, nearly halfway through a monthlong stay at Sacred Heart, says she’s not bitter because the church turned her down.
“I cannot expect a church group to be any more advanced, really, until they get the question posed to them,” she says. “So I posed the question.”
Drumheller was a member of Dying Well Network long before her leukemia diagnosis.
She has worked toward making assisted suicide legal in Washington and watches closely as the battle continues in the courts.
Supreme Court justices are expected to say this fall whether they’ll resolve the issue for all states.
A ban on assisted suicide in Washington was struck down by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which called it unconstitutional.
Assistant Attorney General Bill Williams says Washington state plans to file an appeal to the Supreme Court by July 4.
In the meantime, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor temporarily stopped Washington doctors from helping terminally ill patients end their lives.
Anyone wishing to participate in such a suicide should consider it illegal, says Williams. Even a church.
“Criminal charges could be filed for conduct that occurs while the appeal is pending,” he warns.
Drumheller isn’t working on the invitations for her wake just yet. Between bouts of nausea, she’s making plans to promote Democratic candidates in next fall’s election.
Still, she’s hopeful that should her time come early, she can take part in the planning.
“It’s not that I’m giving up and I’m not going to give up,” she says. “It’s just that none of us gets out of here alive.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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