Culture Death & Dying Ethics General story Opinion

Does God really want us to suffer unrelenting pain?

No fewer than 12 states are considering some form of legislation to allow terminally ill people the option of medical aid in dying should they find themselves in such circumstances.

(RNS) The Rev. Rob Apgar-Taylor, a United Church of Christ minister in Frederick, Md., can recall vividly the circumstances that led to his becoming a passionate advocate for medical aid in dying: “My ex-wife’s husband (also named Robert, coincidentally) was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a brain tumor, in 2011.

“The last year of his life, following a second surgery to remove a large tumor from his brain, was a living hell. He suffered daily seizures and unrelenting pain.

“His family and my children were severely affected by this process.

“Robert and his wife had a child together, and this precious little girl spent every day watching her father struggle with chronic, debilitating pain. She was 8 when he died. It will no doubt have lifelong effects for her.

“Perhaps the most telling effect of witnessing this horrible journey came from my daughter, who told me, ‘Dad, I will never put any of you through this again. If this is ever me, I would end my life before I did this to any of you.’”

No fewer than 12 states are considering some form of legislation to allow terminally ill people the option of medical aid in dying. Those states are Alaska, Arizona, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin.

Five states (Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and California) already permit such assistance to a dying adult under certain conditions. The impetus for such legislation has come from concerned citizens, health care providers and secular organizations such as Compassion & Choices.

It has also come from some of us in the religious community.

In adopting a resolution reaffirming its previous support of medical aid in dying, the Central Atlantic Conference of the UCC last June joined a growing chorus of faith organizations convinced that their faith commitments require the affirmation and advancement of human dignity at all life’s stages, including and especially the end of life.

In my social justice witness on behalf of my UCC conference, I have had the responsibility and privilege of advocating for its position on medical aid in dying in legislative hearings on Maryland’s End of Life Option Act, which failed in the General Assembly. During those hearings, one of the arguments religious opponents of the bill employed is that suffering can be a divinely sanctioned means of dignifying the sufferer and edifying the observer.

On the basis of that reasoning, the suffering that Robert experienced and that his family vicariously shared was directed or at least permitted by God, somehow for their own good, at least in principle.

But it should not be taken to mean that suffering for suffering’s sake is somehow a divine gift of ennoblement or test of character. To be sure, there are forms of struggle or travail that contribute to more worthy ends; thus, we rightly esteem doctors who labor under severe conditions to save lives in war-torn areas or admire parents who make extraordinary sacrifices to provide for their children.

Still, it is the common impulse of people of goodwill everywhere to prevent or at least mitigate all forms of gratuitous suffering — i.e., suffering that cannot reasonably be held to serve a higher purpose. Such a disposition is no less characteristic of the divine reality that, because it sympathetically shares in the joys and pains of each of us, wholeheartedly embraces in unbounded love all of us.

Considerations of the kind of life we are called to lead are paramount to our moral deliberations and should inform matters of public policy. We certainly agree that a person’s life as such has value to God.

Yet we also believe that quality of life is important to God. When that quality declines irreversibly, people who have a medical prognosis of six or fewer months left to live may morally choose to end that life by means that are, in their own way, an affirmation of divinely endowed human intelligence and dignity. Such means are those permitted by the End of Life Option Act.

(The Rev. Alexander F. Vishio is assistant minister for Social Justice & Witness for the Central Atlantic Conference-United Church of Christ, in Catonsville, Md.)

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  • My 14-year old border collie was suffering. She had been my friend and protector for almost all of her life when I had her euthanized. I considered it my last act of love for her. I hope someone will do the same for me when the time comes.

  • Correction please. Your source has done you a disservice. The promoters of assisted suicide have worn out their thesaurus attempting to imply that it is legal in Montana. Assisted suicide is a homicide in Montana. Our MT Supreme Court did ruled that if a doctor is charged with a homicide they might have a potential defense based on consent. They acknowledged it is a homicide in the ruling.

    The Court did not address civil liabilities and they vacated the lower court’s claim that it was a constitutional right. Unlike Oregon no one in Montana has immunity from civil or criminal prosecution and investigations are not prohibited like Oregon. Does that sound legal to you?
    Perhaps the promotors are frustrated that even though they were the largest lobbying spender in Montana their Oregon model legalizing assisted suicide bills have been rejected in Montana in 2011, 2013 and 2015.
    Respectfully submitted,
    Bradley Williams
    President
    Mtaas dot org

  • I take exception to the polling on legalizing assisted suicide.
    I have found (serving 60 fair booth days) that about half of the public thinks they are in favor of such a law; that is until they learn about the flaws in the laws that create new paths of elder abuse with immunity. Once they learn that a predatory heir may steer the signup process and then forcibly administer the lethal dose without oversight, they all said, “I am not for that!”.
    Anyway all of these Oregon Model bills have the same flaws that work together to eviscerate flaunted safe guards.
    For example how many times have you nodded your head when the proponents declared that the lethal dose must be self-administered?
    Well, read the language of the law/bill and you will find that there is no means provided to insure that marketing point. For example “self-administrate” was mentioned 11 times in the 8 page Minnesota SF 1880 and yet there was no means provided to confirm that the lethal dose was forced on not, who would know if they struggled and not consented.
    In fact what is provided is that there may be no investigations allowed after the death (page 6 of 8 Subd. 12. In addition allowing a stranger that claims to know how the person communicates may speak for them eviscerates all the intended safeguards, page 1 of 8 (e).
    Along with allowing predatory heirs and staff to witness even as other family members are not required to be contact.

    This is a very dangerous public policy that by their own records in OR and WA is establishing poisoning as the “medical standard of care” for people that have “feelings” of fear of the loss of autonomy.
    We are all at risk of abuse by these poorly composed laws/bills.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Bradley Williams
    President
    MTaas dot org

  • in correct again RNS. The California law does not go into effect until June 9, 2016, so physician assisted suicide is still NOT LEGAL in California. Please check your sources you are frequently wrong on this issue.

  • I don’t remember hearing anyone state at the Maryland hearings that “suffering can be a divinely sanctioned means of dignifying the sufferer and edifying the observer.”
    Also, you are focusing on assisted suicide as a way to end suffering, but the VAST majority of Oregonians who ended their own lives (with the help of doctors) said in surveys that a loss of autonomy was their primary reason for doing so. The desire to end suffering was several places down the list.

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