By Tom Strode, Baptist Press
WASHINGTON (BP) – California’s newly enacted assisted suicide law is an affront to human dignity and the practice of medicine, Southern Baptist ethicists say.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act into law Oct. 5, making California the fourth state with legalized, physician-assisted suicide. The measure enables a person who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness to request a prescribed drug to end his or her life.
Southern Baptist ethics leader Russell Moore called Brown’s enactment of the bill “a moral injustice.”
“The value of human life doesn’t rise and fall depending on the quality of that life,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in written comments for Baptist Press. “Legal assisted suicide is a blight upon any culture’s conscience, and its emergence in California should ignite us to work for justice and human dignity everywhere.”
C. Ben Mitchell, another Southern Baptist ethicist, said assisted suicide “is grotesque, especially in the age of effective pain management and palliative care.”
“If the fears of patients are not adequately addressed, of course they are going to despair, but if pain is well-managed and their fears of abandonment, loss and suffering are relieved, most patients do not want to die unnaturally,” said Mitchell, provost and professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. “So-called death with dignity is one of the least dignified ways to die.
“Physicians who participate in physician-assisted suicide are forfeiting human medicine on the altar of ill-informed public opinion,” he told BP in written remarks.
In a written message explaining his decision, Brown said he read the arguments for and against assisted suicide before he ultimately reflected on what he “would want in the face of my own death.”
“I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” he said. “I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”
Disability rights activist Diane Coleman, however, said Brown’s reasoning is based on misconceptions.
“When held up alongside the factually based and well considered reasons that disability rights organizations oppose legalization of assisted suicide — mistaken prognoses, insurance denials, family coercion and abuse, among others — his failure to veto the bill amounts to a breach of his duty to protect all Californians, not just the privileged few who can count on high quality health care and the support of a loving family,” said Coleman, president of Not Dead Yet.
Not only pro-life advocates but some progressive Democrats opposed the End of Life Option Act when California lawmakers approved it in a special session in September. Foes of the bill inside and outside the legislature expressed concern for the poor, as well as other citizens whose insurance may pay for a lethal prescription but not drugs to treat their illness. Terminally ill patients already have reported such decisions by Medicaid and insurance companies.
Physician-assisted suicide “endangers the weak and marginalized in society,” said Ryan Anderson, a fellow with the Heritage Foundation, in a March interview with the ERLC. “Where it has been allowed, safeguards purporting to minimize this risk have proved to be inadequate and have often been watered down or eliminated over time. People who deserve society’s assistance are instead offered accelerated death.”
Aaron Kheriaty, a psychiatrist at the University of California-Irvine and a board member of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, said in written comments those “who are economically and socially marginalized, who do not have access to even decent medical care, will be vulnerable to pressures to accept this cheap and expedient ‘option’ for dealing with difficult, complex, and frequently expensive situations at the end of life.”
California joins Oregon, Vermont and Washington as states with legalized assisted suicide. Montana has not made the practice legal, but its Supreme Court has ruled a doctor can use a patient’s request as a defense if charged with assisting in a suicide.
Oregon — which became in 1997 the first state to legalize assisted suicide — has received reports of 859 patients dying after taking legally prescribed drugs. Washington has surpassed Oregon in the yearly number of assisted suicides since it legalized the practice in 2009. In 2014, Washington reported 170 deaths by assisted suicide, while Oregon had 105.
Messengers to the 2015 Southern Baptist Convention meeting adopted a resolution affirming “the dignity and sanctity of human life at all stages of development, from conception to natural death.”
The resolution also called on churches and Christians “to care for the elderly among us, to show them honor and dignity, and to prayerfully support and counsel those who are providing end-of-life care for the aged, the terminally ill, and the chronically infirmed.”
In related news:
– A Tennessee judge blocked an attempt by a former gubernatorial candidate to take his life with a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs. Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy ruled Sept. 29 that John Jay Hooker, 85, who has terminal cancer, and two physicians do not have legal standing to bring a lawsuit, The Nashville Tennessean reported. If the doctors prescribe drugs for suicide, they will “engage in criminal conduct,” McCoy said.
– The New Mexico Court of Appeals struck down Aug. 11 a lower court decision that had legalized assisted suicide. The court rejected a district court ruling that found in the state constitution that “aid in dying is a fundamental liberty interest.”