in my post on the Death Penalty and Universalism I wrote: “To me, that seems a bit arrogant on our part to think we have the ability to judge the worthiness of a life to continue or to be halted; regardless if the method is done in what the supreme court deems to be a humane methodology.”
I think I hit a contradiction in my theology that will need to somehow be reconciled. I happen to believe that there may be end of life choices that are humane to be made… such as euthanasia when there is no possible hope of a person to recover from a terminal illness or in an alzheimer’s coma or only being maintained by extraordinary life supports. But my comment above regarding the death penalty seems to fly in the face of this other issue that many families are facing in our age of medical miracles that can sustain the human body long after the brain ceases to interact with its world. Are we not judging the worthiness of life by pulling the plug on a loved one who nolonger is able to have the quality of life that we have determined as worthy of living?
Unitarian Universalists uphold the principle of “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” This means that we are each responsible to wrestle with these issues for ourselves. In the process, we may come to differing conclusions to the challenges that living in the 21st century offers. It would be easier to have a pontiff like the Pope to decree what we are to believe on this or that issue. And if the answers contradict other 21st challenges, sobeit, someone with more responsibility for my soul has given the answer.
That is not how Unitarian Univesalism works however. We are each responsible to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. In doing so, we come to differing positions and these differing positions allow us to have a richness in our discerning our journey in community with each other.
I wrote a sermon entitled: When Death is the Only Choice” which delves a bit into this issue. Here is an excerpt from that sermon:
“End of life questions are unique to our time because for the first time in human history we have the ability to prolong life. We are now able to postpone death by decades. Events that would have been fatal at the beginning of the 20th century, now in the beginning of the 21st century are only temporary set backs. Neither Karen Ann [Quinlan] nor Terry [Shiavo] would have made international attention in 1907. They both would have died shortly after their initial medical traumas.
“The debate regarding Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, now at a fevered pitch, is a consequence of enhanced power to extend life. Euthanasia is defined as “the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit.” Assisted suicide is defined as “someone providing an individual with the information, guidance, and means to take his or her own life with the intention that they will be used for this purpose. When it is a doctor who helps another person to kill themselves it is called ‘physician assisted suicide.’” [http://www.euthanasia.com/definitions.html]
“Opponents to assisted suicide and euthanasia have a few arguments that do cry out for our consideration. Disability advocates like the national disability civil rights organization TASH see assisted suicide as a means for profit driven Health Maintenance Organizations to cut costs in medical treatment. Assisted suicide is only a true choice for those who financially can pay to receive medical care or receive assisted suicide. Those who do not have the financial ability may be left to the mercy of the Health Maintenance Organizations or HMO’s. Already, stories are being told of managed care companies overruling physician’s treatment decisions because of cost factors, with sometimes the overruling hastening the person’s death. There may be some truth in the disability advocates argument if legal assisted suicide were to be made available.
“It has been argued that cost savings to Health Maintenance Organizations do not figure into assisted suicide decisions. However, the studies that state cost savings as being minimal only look at the last month of life. Yet, in Oregon where assisted suicide law exists, the definition of terminal illnesses is having 6 months to live. Suddenly the half a billion dollars saved in the final month becomes several billion saved over six months. Would several billion dollars be an incentive for HMO’s to encourage assisted suicide options?
“Numerous studies have shown the inequitable medical treatment given to blacks versus whites. “African-American women die from treatable illnesses (e.g. diabetes, hypertension, etc.) at twice the rate of white women and African-American men die at a rate almost three times greater than white men. [Sunday Oregonian 6/7/98]”
“Bio-ethicists have expressed concerns that permitting assisted suicide presents new opportunities to victimize minorities. One African American bio-ethicist said, “People know they don’t get the health care they need while they’re living. So what makes them think anything’s going to be more sensitive when they’re dying.” [Detroit Free Press 2/26/97].
“In the first year of Oregon’s assisted suicide law, all but one of the requests for assisted suicide were requested “for fear of losing functional ability, autonomy, or control of bodily functions [Oregon Health Division, 1999]” In the Netherlands, where voluntary euthanasia exists, physicians report that more than half of requests are because of the fear of loss of dignity.
“Thousands of people with disabilities rely on personal assistance and feel that needing help is not undignified but has enabled them to live. TASH and other disability advocates state the current “public image of severe disability as a fate worse than death …” [Coleman, Diane, J.D. 2002. “Not Dead Yet,” in The Case Against Assisted Suicide – For the Right to End-of-Life Care.] Their argument is that people with severe disabilities would be pushed into assisted suicide because of this public image of relying on personal assistance as an indignity.”
This is a complicated issue and one that I will continue to struggle with in terms of my theology and in terms of my own desires for end of life care. There seems to be no easy answer. May we each find our own reconciliation to this 21st century moral dilemma. Blessings, Rev. Fred L Hammond