Totally secular right to die

A billboard campaign orchestrated by a right-to-die group remains alive and well, but it already has gone straight to heaven. Free-media heaven, that is.

From the New York Daily News to ABC, the mainstream media are shining a spotlight on the billboard's message: "My Life / My Death / My Choice /"

Religion News Service picked up a Star-Ledger story on the billboards this week and distributed it nationally. Datelined Hillside, N.J., the RNS report explains:

The 15-by-49-foot billboard went up June 28, paid for by Final Exit Network, a nationwide group that provides guidance to adults seeking to end a life of constant pain from incurable illness.

The billboard, along with one in San Francisco and another planned for Florida, anchors a national campaign by the network to raise awareness of itself and its mission. Members say the locations were chosen for their reputations as being socially progressive and, in Florida's case, for its elderly population.

"What we're trying to do is let people know that Final Exit Network exists, and that we're here, and if they spend a little time trying to find out what we do, they might actually support us," said Bob Levine, 88, of Princeton, who founded the group’s New Jersey chapter after his first wife died of cancer.

From there, the story immediately delves into what could be considered religious issues -- just as you'd expect from the nation's only secular news service devoted to unbiased coverage of religion and ethics:

Levine said reaction on the organization's website has been mixed: "From, 'God bless you, we finally have somebody who understands us,' to 'You are a bunch of atheists and you ought to be put in jail.'"

Criticism has also come from two other corners: suicide prevention counselors and the Catholic Church.

Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, said the message "cannot be condoned."

"The Catholic Church teaches, and has always taught, that all human life has dignity and all human life is precious," he said.

OK, the organization has been called a "bunch of atheists." What religious beliefs, if any, does Levine actually hold? What about Final Exit's reported 3,000 members nationwide? Do they come from diverse religious backgrounds or share a common theological -- or lack of theological -- perspective? Unfortunately, RNS provides no answers -- or even clues -- on any of these questions.

Those two paragraphs about the Catholic Church, meanwhile, are as deep as that theological discussion gets. There is no context on the complexity of how the church hierarchy views different life issues, such as abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment.

Contrast the RNS approach with that of Fox News, which consulted a variety of faith leaders and religious scholars for its report on the moral debate sparked by the right-to-die billboard campaign.

I know that wire services, such as RNS and The Associated Press, face word-count constraints, but Fox managed to answer a key question with two single words:

Levine, an agnostic, says he has no problem with other people's religious beliefs. "If you want to say, well, God just has to take it (my life) that's OK as far as I'm concerned for you, but certainly not for me."

An agnostic. See, that wasn't so hard. Now, granted, if RNS had used that description, I would have wanted an explanation of what Levine means by that. But that's because I expect more of RNS. Smile. Seriously, though, in a story about religion, such details matter.

Fox also turned to a leading religious scholar for insight:

And that's where the secular and sacred worlds part. None of the major religions condone suicide, as defined as the willful taking of one's own life, says religion scholar Stephen Prothero, author of "God is Not One" and "Religious Literacy."

"Suicide is forbidden in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," and it is considered "bad karma in Buddhism and Hinduism," he said.

But the question of whether it is acceptable to end pain and suffering or commit to martyrdom is nuanced in many faiths.

Again, that's great information. And I couldn't help but chuckle at Fox quoting a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor. But I digress.

Here's another meaty chunk of the Fox report:

But Pastor Tom Nelson of Denton Bible Church says martyrdom "is not taking your life (or anyone else's). It's giving your life." He says that's a major distinction, even when a person is in severe pain.

Nelson, author of "A Life Well-Lived," says nowhere in the Bible is there a glorified suicide. "You see good men wishing they were dead, and asking God to take their life" -- like Jonah or Elijah. "But they never do it themselves."

One of the problems with our society is that we never have conversations about death, said Rabbi Irwin Kula. It's the common denominator of all human beings, the great equalizer, yet most of our talk is polarized.

"What we need is a genuine conversation about what it means to die, which we don't have," said Kula, author of "Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life."

"The billboard is rhetoric, it avoids conversation," he said. He also said it's part truth. "It's not 'my life', it's both my life and God's life.... It's not just my choice, it's my choice and God's choice. "You're not here alone. You're part of a network."

Unless I'm missing it, Fox doesn't tell me where Denton Bible Church is located or give any more details on Kula's home congregation -- both facts that seem relevant.

But I'm impressed with Fox's attempt to dig below the surface and conquer the religion ghosts in this story.

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