On the Church and Society January 24, 2006
The U.S. Supreme Court on January 17 ruled against the Justice Department's challenge to Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law. While worrisome, the Court's majority opinion was not a sweeping endorsement of the culture of death.
Oddly, when the topic of euthanasia comes up, I sometimes think of William Shatner and "Star Trek."
Shatner played Captain James T. Kirk for so many years, and is a hot property again, not only winning an Emmy Award for his role on ABC's "Boston Legal," but also recently raising $25,000 for Habitat for Humanity by selling a kidney stone.
But what's with Captain Kirk and physician-assisted suicide? Well, Shatner's lone stab at directing a "Star Trek" film came in 1989 at the helm of "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier." It was a mixed effort, but one scene struck me.
Dr. "Bones" McCoy thinks back on his father's pain and suffering, and his plea, "Son, release me." McCoy turned off the life support system to preserve his father's "dignity." But the story took a twist when McCoy discovered not long after that a cure was found.
From a straight medical technology perspective, that's a risk of euthanasia. Who knows what modern medicine will accomplish tomorrow? On the other side of this coin, treating human beings is an inexact science. Two doctors might predict that someone will not live beyond six months, a requirement in the Oregon law, but that assessment could be way off.
The issue of assisted suicide, however, goes far beyond the state of medical science. It is a moral issue.
While no other state has yet followed Oregon, where voters approved physician-assisted suicide in 1994 and again in 1998, legislation has been offered in several states. Even more distressing, USA Today reported on January 18: "A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll in September found that 54% of Americans said doctors should be allowed to help someone 'end his or her life.' Approval dropped to 46%, however, when other poll respondents were asked the question using the words 'commit suicide.'"
So, roughly half of poll respondents were fine with doctors aiding people to commit suicide. That's tragic, but not necessarily surprising. It is predictable in a culture emphasizing selfishness, and the mistaken notion that such decisions are completely personal and affect no one else.
So, where are the biblical and moral teachings from the Christian Church? Actually, Christian denominations have been pretty unified in opposing euthanasia.
In an article for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Rev. Stanley Harakas summed up the traditional Christian view. He noted that the Orthodox Church rejects the assertions that a person has the right to end his life when deemed "not worth living," and that others, including medical personnel, have a duty to provide assistance. Harakas correctly declared that the church sees "such behavior as a form of suicide on the part of the individual, and a form of murder on a part of others who assist in this practice, both of which are seen as sins."
Yet, the nation seems deeply split on assisted suicide. The church has its work cut out, but certainly cannot shun its responsibility.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court did not delve into the morality of euthanasia. In fact, it did not even weigh in on the constitutionality of the federal government overruling a state law allowing physician-assisted suicide. Instead, the Court focused narrowly on whether the U.S. attorney general under current federal law could challenge a doctor's privilege to write prescriptions by finding that assisted suicide is not "a legitimate medical purpose."
The Court's majority got it wrong, ignoring the plain statutory and regulatory meanings. But euthanasia remains alive as a political issue, state by state and nationally. And so much is at stake, from the corruption of the medical profession to how our society values human life to the state of our souls.
End of life decisions can be wrought with pain, suffering and deep emotions. And sometimes it's hard to see God's purpose. But true dignity lies in having the courage to trust God. As St. Paul noted, "whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's." (Romans 14:8)
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.
Copyright © Raymond J. Keating