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Pro-Life series: Physician-Assisted Suicide

This is the 8th post in our "What Being Pro-Life Means to Me" series! What does being pro-life mean to you? Over this fall, we'll hear various writers respond to that question. Learn more and subscribe for weekly email updates. 

When the doctors told my wife and me that our infant son, Dylan, would die in the next few days, they gave us a choice: remove life support or allow him to die while on life support. Our family members came to the hospital that day, where we spent an afternoon with Dylan, weeping at his impending passing. We all were allowed to hold him, which had not been possible since his birth, and I baptized him. That night, life support was removed, and Dylan died in the loving arms of my wife and I rather than dying alone in a plastic incubator. 

A couple of years later, my dad was given three to six months to live after receiving a diagnosis of liver cancer. Dad was in excellent physical condition and lived out the full six months. The first four of those months his life wasn’t all that much different than before, except that he had some pain and was more tired than usual. The final two months he was mostly confined to the hospital bed in mom’s and dad’s living room. In the final weeks, his pain increased significantly, and he received more and more morphine. The people from hospice told dad and us that higher doses of morphine might hasten his passing. The morphine and the hospital bed kept him fairly comfortable, and he died quietly one morning.

A woman with an advanced stage of cancer lived in an area where physician assisted suicide is legal. With her family this woman decided to ask to receive a drug that would bring about her death. She received this permission and died when she took the drug.

In all three of these situations, the person was close to death. In all three, their deaths were hastened by decisions they made or decisions made for them. In all three, the individuals were surrounded by people they loved, and the bests interests of the person dying were kept at the forefront. They have one glaring difference: in the third scenario, physician assisted suicide, the medication was specifically intended to cause the death of the person receiving it.

Earlier this week California governor, Jerry Brown, signed into law ABX2 15, which is also called the "End of Life Option Act," permitting physician assisted suicide. With this act, California joins four other states that allow physician assisted suicide. Last February, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that laws prohibiting assisted suicide are unconstitutional, and the court gave federal and provincial governments one year to craft legislation allowing assisted suicide.  (For more information on this ruling, and ideas for contacting government officials about it, see the excellent resource page put together by the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue. ) For me, being “pro-life” includes a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices including support for excellent end-of-life care and opposition to physician assisted suicide.

Numerous organizations in Canada and in the U.S. have come out strongly against “right to die” or “physician assisted death” legislation. When the Supreme Court of Canada made their decision in February, I and several other CRC denominational staff issued a statement about the ruling, including these words: “Compassion for suffering, protection of vulnerable people, and the celebration and affirmation of life are all Biblical values that our communities hold dear. The national dialogue needs the voices of Christians who graciously speak these values into the deeply controversial issue of physician-assisted suicide.” Compassion for suffering, protection of vulnerable people and celebration, and affirmation of life are three reasons why I am pro-life and oppose assisted suicide.

Compassion for suffering

When the fight has been long and difficult, some people want a clear and decisive end to the frustrations, discomforts, and indignities of terminal illness. Life-affirming legislation must include provision for excellent end-of-life care which includes pain management and good social work. Modern pain management has reduced the level of physical pain that nearly anyone must endure at the end of life, which was the approach taken by hospice personnel at the end of my dad’s life. Good social work helps not only the person who is dying but also his or her loved ones to deal with the reality of the impending death, and do so in a way that affirms relationships while confronting death’s final reality.

Protection of Vulnerable People

People with disabilities have good reason to fear laws that permit assisted suicide. Legislation allowing for physician assisted suicide puts vulnerable people at risk no matter how many “safeguards” are put in place. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities has said “Assisted suicide is not a free choice as long as [people with disabilities] are denied adequate healthcare, affordable personal assistance in their communities, and equal access to social structures and systems.” In addition, Not Dead Yet, an organization which opposes assisted suicide legislation, has argued that people with disabilities are especially vulnerable. “Although intractable pain has been emphasized as the primary reason for enacting assisted suicide laws, the top five reasons Oregon doctors actually report for issuing lethal prescriptions are ‘loss of autonomy’ (91%), ‘less able to engage in activities’ (89%), ‘loss of dignity’ (81%), ‘loss of control of bodily functions’ (50%), and ‘feelings of being a burden’ (40%).(Death With Dignity Act Annual Reports) These are disability issues.”

Affirmation of Life

The Supreme Court of Canada decision follows the argument of many assisted suicide advocates: people have a variety of rights, including the right to die. The Bible has no room in theory or in practice for a “right to die.” The deliberate choice to extinguish a human life under most circumstances is murder according to the 10 commandments, whether the life is someone else’s or one’s own. In addition, our bodies are not our own according to I Corinthians 6:19-20: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Still, Christ’s finished work covers all the sins of those who believe in him, even sins done deliberately, even sins for which confession is never made. Suicide is not an unforgivable sin.

God can work great good even at the end of a difficult journey. During the last six months of my dad’s life, family members and friends had conversations with dad that we might never have had if we had not been “put on notice” that he would pass away, or if he had chosen an assisted suicide. For example, throughout his life dad never wanted to talk much about his experiences with the 3rd Armored Division in World War II, but his grandkids asked to talk with him about it. Dad got out his old maps and memorabilia, and talked with his grandkids about the war for nearly two hours. The tape recording we have of that conversation is dear to us. Earlier this month, Christianity Today published an article by Kim Kuo about the death of her husband who battled cancer for 10 years before it took him. The battle was physical, emotional, and spiritual. Kuo looked this suffering squarely in the face and still was able to conclude, “Especially in suffering, we can dive below the shallow waters and touch another’s heart and soul.”

Kuo concludes with a call to action, not just to oppose assisted suicide, but to come alongside people who are terminally ill and their loved ones. I can’t say it any better, so I’ll conclude with her words: “On behalf of people who are facing terminal illness, severe depression, or any acute suffering: Act with true compassion. Get involved in their lives. Be present in their suffering. Pray for their healing. Let the reality of death change your life. And rest assured that defending life is not merciless or judgmental—and that to endorse assisted suicide is simply to give up hope.”

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[Image from the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue's Vote 2015 resources]

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