Assisted Suicide Draws Religious Fire
A federal court’s recent “right-to-die” ruling cuts to the heart of religious principles.
Catholics, Jews and Buddhists alike cite traditional doctrine as they oppose the court decision that asserts a right to assisted suicide.
Quakers, Mormons and most evangelicals are against euthanasia for the terminally ill.
Most mainline Protestant groups do not have official statements on the issue, but two Spokane Methodist ministers speak in favor of doctor-assisted suicide.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on March 5 struck down a Washington state law that bans physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill.
Last week, Roman Catholic Bishop William Skylstad issued a strongly worded statement against the ruling.
If the decision stands, “Washington will name the killing fields of our land,” the Spokane bishop wrote.
“In the tradition of Pontius Pilate, the federal court has abandoned society and the common good by approving and legalizing private arrangements for the taking of human life. What role does government play if it will not stand up for life?” Skylstad wrote.
The Catholic bishops of Washington state urged Attorney General Christine Gregoire to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The attorney general’s office has not yet decided whether to appeal.
Assisted suicide “does violence to our conviction that life, no matter how feeble or impaired, is a sacred gift from God,” the bishops said.
They called the ruling “misguided and tragically flawed.” It fails, they said, to make a distinction between unnecessarily prolonging life and actively aiding a suicide.
Most religious leaders, despite their opposition to doctor-assisted suicide, do not believe in prolonging life of the terminally ill. They say people should be allowed to die naturally, without artificial life support.
Rabbi Jacob Izakson of Spokane’s Temple Beth Shalom said, “On this issue, we and the Catholic church have a very similar position. The issue is not the quality of life, it’s the sanctity of life.”
Jewish law, based on the sixth century writings of the Talmud, prohibits Jews from taking their own lives, Izakson said. “We are permitted to neither hasten death nor delay it.”
In 1991, the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism opposed Washington’s right-to-die initiative for that reason. It failed at the polls.
Lama Inge Sandvoss at Padma Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist center on Spokane’s lower South Hill, said doctor-assisted suicide also violates the most basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism.
Buddhists vow not to harm any sentient being, from mosquitoes to dying collies to human beings.
They believe that suicide is one of the most negative acts a person can commit.
Suicide victims “will go on to greater suffering,” Sandvoss said. “It’s just jumping from the frying pan into the fire.”
Buddhists consider the moment of death precious because it’s the instant when human beings can reach enlightenment.
They fear that if they fail to become enlightened, they’ll wind up in a confusing afterlife state where they must barter to re-enter a new body, she said.
Buddhists believe in caring for the dying, keeping them comfortable as the end nears, and reading from the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” Sandvoss said.
Johnny Cox, an ethicist at Sacred Heart Medical Center, believes that dying provides a final stage of growth. People often reconcile with family members, experience exquisitely vital moments of life, and grasp new spiritual insights.
He advocates alternatives to assisted suicide, such as improved pain management and home chore services that can ease the burdens of the dying and their families.
The Rev. Robert Stevenson, a United Methodist minister and director of the Samaritan Counseling Center in Spokane, agrees that death is a deeply spiritual time.
“It is an awesome thing,” he said. “It is one of those moments when for all of us, God is close at hand.”
Stevenson, however, believes that the dying should have a right not only to prepare for their death, but also to choose when they will die.
The United Methodist Church adopted a statement in 1992 which raises issues to be discussed when a terminally ill person considers suicide. It does not prohibit this action.
Other religious groups should not prohibit that choice for Methodists, he said.
“If we choose to take a dose of morphine, that’s our decision,” Stevenson said. “We do that just as spiritually and as reverently as they make their decisions.”
At one time, religious groups opposed surgery because they believed it allowed doctors to play God, Stevenson said.
His colleague, the Rev. John Shaffer, pastor of the United Methodist Church, is outspoken in his support of doctor-assisted suicide.
“In my own mother’s case, she starved herself to death,” Shaffer said. “I don’t see it was more humane to go through those days of agony rather than to allow her to go out with some assistance.”
Shaffer’s brother cared for their mother during her last months, and wound up wishing doctor-assisted suicide was available.
“I agree with my brother,” Shaffer said. “I wish there were a Jack Kevorkian in every city in the nation.”
A number of religious groups, including the Spokane Episcopal Diocese, the Spokane Council of Ecumenical Ministries, the Washington Association of Churches, and the Unitarian-Universalist Church, have no official positions on suicide because their members haven’t reached consensus.
Leaders cautiously avoid characterizing their members’ positions on the issue.
For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the priesthood handbook says, “A person who participates in euthanasia deliberately putting to death a person suffering from incurable conditions or diseases violates the commandments of God.”
Mormon public affairs director Pat Montgomery said, “It’s not an official statement. It’s a policy we go by.”
Quaker pastor Earl Tycksen, of the Spokane Friends Church, said his church “rejects the un-Christian preempting of God’s authority over human life.
“Who are we to make some decisions? I think we’re making choices we ought to leave to God,” he said.
The Rev. C.W. Andrews Sr. of Calvary Baptist Church in Spokane, the state’s oldest black church, said dying “should be the will of God.
“I don’t want any life support when my time comes,” Andrews said. “I want the Lord just to take me. I don’t want to prolong it or to shorten it.”
The Greater Spokane Association of Evangelicals has not taken a position, but most members oppose physician-assisted suicide, said president Phil Altmeyer.
“Life is given from God,” Altmeyer said. “God is the giver and taker of life, not man.
“There are a lot of tough issues. I don’t think they are cut and dried. I hope I never have to face them.”