Writers Note: This post was originally published on my site on March 6, 2005 in response to the news that the US Supreme Court would review Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. That case will be heard in October. PBS’ Religion and Ethics News Weekly covers the story this week on television and their web site. With the case being heard soon it seemed like a good moment to revisit the issue.
The US Supreme Court recently decided to review a Bush Administration challenge to Oregon’s death with dignity act. The law was approved by voters in 1994 and reaffirmed by an even larger majority in a subsequent election. Both times I voted for the bill. The law is designed to help those who are terminally-ill end their life through medical intervention after a process of discernment involving the patient and medical professionals. Research has shown that the law is evoked infrequently and by those suffering from a great deal of pain and suffering.
In 1991, the United Church of Christ 18th General Synod passed a resolution entitled "The Rights and Responsibilities of Christians Regarding Human Death." An excerpt from the resolution states "the Eighteenth General Synod supports the rights of individuals, their designees and their families to make decisions regarding human death and dying...."
Religious support for the law is limited. The United Church of Christ is one of the only religious bodies to affirm the right of people to make end of life decisions. That is unfortunate. Sometimes the only path to healing is through death – and Christians make the faith claim that death is in reality only an illusion. Allowing individuals to make their own decision is the most humane path available to us in an era where our tendency is to try and keep people alive no matter the circumstances. Sometimes people are kept alive in terrible pain and without hope of relief (I’ve witnessed this firsthand). Pain medicines do not help everyone and that means people often linger in agony. That is who this law was meant to help.
There are many safeguards built into Oregon’s law to keep people from making rash decisions. People with terminal-illnesses obviously took their lives before the law was passed. Voters responded to that reality when endorsing the act. Oregonians now have a humane alternative available to them. Sadly, George W. Bush wants to take away that alternative.
This is one of those issues where Christians can have honest disagreements. But why allow the courts or the Bush Administration to interfere with such a personal decision? Why not let the decision rest with the one suffering? Overturning the law will not stop people from taking their own lives. It will only take away the one alternative they have. Oregonians debated the issue – twice – and came to a moral conclusion - one consistent with Christian ethics. I hope the law will stand the administration’s challenge.