Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Physician Assisted Suicide

The death of the young woman in Oregon (I refuse to use her name--the fact that this was played out in the media on such a personal level is unfortunate) has many of us in a quandary, yours truly included.  When I lay out the things I think I believe they leave me in a very muddled place.

  • Suicide is a choice but it is almost always an irrational choice.  It unilaterally breaks relationships and in that respect it is sinful, although I would not say it is unforgivable.  Some say it is simply cowardly and selfish.  That's a far too easy judgment.
  • What physician assisted suicide, or, I suppose, any suicide in the face of terminal illness, raises is the possibility that it is a completely rational decision.  I think in most cases that is probably correct.  Certainly as a priest I have been supportive when individuals have chosen not to undergo treatment to prolong their life, or to end treatment that had begun.  I suppose one might call that "suicide," and to a degree it is, yet the choice usually involves living with the illness until the illness itself causes death.
  • I would defend a person's right to choose death rationally, just as I defend a woman's right to choose to end a pregnancy.  But only in rare circumstances would I commend such a decision, certainly not without careful consideration of the other options.
  • I have walked with many people from the discovery of terminal illness until death.  Most of the time that involves some level of suffering, sometimes great suffering, although the greatest suffering I have seen over the years has almost been entirely by those whose family's choose the "whatever it takes to  keep father alive" path.
  • Although I do not believe that suffering in and of itself is redemptive, I do believe that life is redemptive and suffering is something all of us must do as a part of life.  I have seen suffering and wholeness/holiness walk side by side to the end of life.  I have seen the one who is suffering and their families and/or friends, be heroic in the giving of courage to one another.

I think we do not talk about death enough, nor do we talk about the relative control we have over our lives, never total, or even near to it.  Control is a high cultural value; it is also, mostly, an illusion.  This is the part of assisted suicide, "rational" suicide, with which I struggle.  Is it the final touches on the idol of control based on the false notion that we should never have to suffer?

I think I mean that to be a rhetorical question.  As I said, I am in a very muddled place about this new reality.  The only thing I am absolutely sure of is that we need to have conversations about all of these questions in our religious communities, in our families, and among our friends.

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