As people in the United States are living longer, there are more and more discussions on quality of life issues. Many of those discussions focus on end of life issues. Patients’ rights issues mingle with death with dignity issues. Nobody wants to suffer a prolonged, painful death. And the conversation moves eventually to the right to die. Some states, like Oregon, have incorporated it into their legal system, and have physician-assisted suicide as a legal option.
Montana is a legal no-man’s land in this issue. The Supreme Court determined that there is no law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide. But neither is there a law that allows it. In past legislative sessions Montana has seen bills introduced both to allow and to prohibit physician-assisted suicide. Both have failed. But the issue is not likely to go away.
Society has changed a lot in the last several decades. Medical advances enable people to live much longer with debilitating conditions. And at the same time there is a movement to allow people more agency in their own health-care decisions. Every time I drop by the hospital lab across the street I am asked if I have a living will.
Families are not always in agreement with each other on end of life issues. The tragic situation of Terry Schiavo a decade ago brought to the public eye the tragedy than ensues when family members are at odds with each other about the best course of action (or inaction.)
So what can we say as Christians? The ELCA has a social message on “End-of- Life Decisions,” adopted in 1992. It affirms 6 basic principles:
+Life is a gift from God, to be received with thanksgiving.
+The integrity of the life processes which God has created should be respected: both birth and death are part of these life processes.
+Both living and dying should occur within a caring community.
+A Christian perspective mandates respect for each person. Such respect included giving due recognition to each person’s carefully considered preferences regarding treatment choices.
+Truthfulness and faithfulness in our relations with others are essential to the texture of human life.
+Hope and meaning in life are possible even in times of suffering and adversity, a truth powerfully proclaimed in the resurrection faith of the church.
The statement explores artificially-administered nutrition and hydration, and the refusal of beneficial treatment. And it addresses physician-assisted death. It states:
“As a church we affirm that deliberately destroying life created in the image of God is contrary to our Christian conscience. While this affirmation is clear, we also recognize that responsible health care professionals struggle to choose the lesser evil in ambiguous borderline situations—for example, when pain becomes so unmanageable that life is indistinguishable from torture.”
“We oppose the legalization of physician-assisted death, which would allow the private killing of one person by another. Public control and regulation of such actions would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The potential for abuse, especially of people who are most vulnerable, would be substantially increased.”
The entire statement is 5 pages, and you may find it helpful to read. You can find it at www.elca.org. I commend it to you as part of your moral discernment for the legislative issues that face Montana and Wyoming in the coming months.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA