Does 'death with dignity' actually involve indignities for doctors and patients?

This notable and quotable line from William Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun” is a good slogan for religion newswriting: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The U.S. Supreme Court supposedly settled the abortion issue in 1973, but -- to the astonishment of many including the Religion Guy -- in 2015  it remains unsettled, all entangled with the presidential campaign, the U.S. Congress and several state legislatures. Will the court’s similar legalization of same-sex marriage be settled, or still unsettled, 42 years from now?

Another issue that’s stirring renewed media interest is physician-assisted suicide, a.k.a. “death with dignity.” Reasons for wariness about this growing practice are raised in two important recent articles that journalists interested in this topic should know about.

New Yorker staff writer Rachel Aviv offered “The Death Treatment: When should people with a non-terminal illness be helped to die?” Her even-handed 8,700-worder in the June 22 issue largely treated the experience in Belgium. Stateside, an August 18 Wall Street Journal opinion piece by William L. Toffler, professor of family medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, had  this strong headline: “A Doctor-Assisted Disaster for Medicine.”

Anticipate more of this. In the wake of the planned suicide in Oregon last Nov. 1 of young brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard, featured in People magazine and other media, legislators in 23 states have introduced new bills to let doctors help patients kill themselves.

Thus far, U.S. doctors have gained that power by legislation only in Oregon (in 1997), Washington state (2009), and Vermont (2013), while a 2009 court edict shields Montana physicians from prosecution.

Toffler, who makes no references to religion, contends that the Oregon’s pioneering system has proven “detrimental to patients, degraded the quality of medical care, and compromised the integrity of the medical profession,” while fostering “fear and secrecy and a fixation on death.”

The law requires a psychological exam if the doctor suspects depression or mental illness, but Toffler complains that only three of the 105 patients killed last year were referred for such exams. A British Medical Journal study concluded that Oregon “may not adequately protect all mentally ill patients.” Among his other complaints  is that state Medicaid won’t  cover palliative pain medications but does pay for euthanasia, so that “life is expensive but death is free.”

Oregon posts information on its “death with dignity” system right here. 

While Oregon allows  poisoning by doctors if patients have less than six months to live, Aviv observes that in Belgium, as well as the Netherlands, patients can be euthanized whether or not they have a terminal illness. She notes that in the past five years assisted suicides have increased in Belgium by more than 150 percent, with various cases involving anorexia, borderline personality disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other such ailments.

Aviv’s article focuses largely on the assisted suicide of Godelieva De Troyer, who had received mental therapy throughout adulthood. Her son Tom (raised to be an atheist) has filed actions against suicide participants and enablers because he was not consulted on what was going on and feels his mother’s mental state was not adequately considered.

The New Yorker article raises the intriguing theme that Belgium’s 2002 law represents the political triumph of “secular humanism” -- solving the problem of “what is life worth when there is no God?” -- and rejection of that nation’s Catholic heritage.

What role does religion play in the U.S. situation? Opposition to legalized killings by the Catholic Church and Evangelical Protestants, as well as the disability rights movement,  is familiar. But how much backing for this moral revolution has emerged in more liberal “mainline” Protestant circles?

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