By Elias Lieberman, via Cape Cod Times
In his My View opinion piece of June 21, “Physician-assisted suicide obsolete and primitive,” William Gallerizzo applies a scattershot approach in stating his opposition to medical aid in dying. Confusing correlation with causation, raising the specter of “human sacrifice” and “cannibalism” and, most egregiously, bringing forward the tremendously offensive comparison of the Nazis murder of those deemed “undesirable” with the legally established right of competent, terminally ill people to ingest life-ending medication to end intractable suffering associated with terminal illness.
Mr. Gallerizzo makes a point of telling the reader that he is an ordained Catholic deacon, as if to suggest this qualifies him to decide what ethical choices others should be entitled to make. We write as clergy representing several faith traditions who are united in our belief that everyone should be entitled to make the most fundamental of choices if faced with suffering that cannot be adequately addressed as a consequence of terminal illness.
What is medical aid in dying? It is a safe and trusted medical practice in which a terminally ill, mentally capable adult with a prognosis of six months or less to live may request from his or her doctor a prescription medication to self-ingest to bring about a peaceful death.
The American public consistently supports medical aid in dying by large majorities (68 percent to 74 percent), as shown in both independent national and state surveys. Three U.S. state polls also confirm that a majority of individuals who identify with a faith tradition support medical aid in dying as an end-of-life option.
Every religious tradition has its own values, tenets and rituals around death. One’s individual beliefs are an important factor in one’s understanding of, and approach to, dying. While some faiths counsel their adherents that advancing the time of death to avoid suffering is immoral, others just as strongly counsel the dying and their families to leave this life in the manner most meaningful to them. Choosing medical aid in dying is only one end-of-life option. Those who are opposed need not choose it. For those who face unbearable suffering that cannot be effectively addressed, even with the most advanced palliative care, this option can give them both courage and hope, allowing them to live fully as long as possible and to pass peacefully when death is imminent. This is a personal decision that only the individual can make.
Faith leaders have no specified role in medical-aid-in-dying laws, nor should they; it is a medical practice involving a dying person and his or her health care providers. The person who chooses medical aid in dying may well ask for spiritual and emotional support from the faith community or faith leader, but no one — not a health care provider or a faith leader — is ever forced to participate.
What about the value of suffering? Beliefs around suffering depend on the individual and the faith tradition. Our understanding of suffering and its purpose in our lives will likely vary from those around us, so we need to allow people to make their own decisions about how to deal with difficulty at the end of life. One individual’s beliefs, or one faith tradition’s teachings, should not dictate how those who do not share them live their lives.
Medical aid in dying is but one end-of-life option for people whose suffering becomes unendurable, and is most frequently used in conjunction with hospice and palliative care. Some terminally ill people will turn to VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) to hasten death and end suffering; some will opt for palliative sedation rendering them insensate to pain but unable to further interact with others. Evidence from Oregon tells us that the three most frequently mentioned end-of-life concerns were loss of autonomy, decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable and loss of dignity. Medical aid in dying is but another option for people whose suffering robs their life of meaning.
Medical aid in dying is not suicide, which is an irrational response to situations perceived to be unchangeable; it is a rational decision, voluntarily undertaken to avoid suffering at life’s end. One physician phrases it this way: “The terminally ill are not suicidal if they ask for a quicker death; they do not reject life; their bodies are doing that for them.”
The well-documented experience of those states that have some form of medical aid in dying now provides decades worth of data that demonstrate that the practice offers a meaningful and valuable end-of-life option.
For all of the aforementioned reasons, we endorse the passage of legislation being considered in the House and Senate that would afford residents of our commonwealth this important end-of-life option.
— Elias Lieberman is rabbi at Falmouth Jewish Congregation. This commentary was also signed by the Rev. John Gibbons of First Parish in Bedford, the Rev. Nell Fields of Waquoit Congregational Church and the Rev. Deborah Warner of Church of the Messiah in Woods Hole.