Moral Authority and Assisted Suicide

Last fall, Oregon voters approved Measure 16, becoming the first state to permit physicians legally to prescribe lethal medications to terminally ill persons who have less than six months to live.

While it's worth watching the judicial struggles over the constitutionality of the measure as they work their way toward the Supreme Court, the battle for the hearts, minds, and votes of Oregonians that led up to the measure's passage in November is also worth careful scrutiny.

In particular, looking at the role that religious and medical leaders played in the public debate over physician-assisted suicide can yield some important lessons about the shifting nature of moral authority in our society.

Throughout the campaign the most visible opposition to Measure 16 came from the church, and in particular the Catholic Church. Religious leaders who opposed the measure presented two basic themes in their statements and commercials: that the measure was fraught with problems and would lead to a "slippery slope" of abuse, and that it was simply wrong.

Archbishop William Levada of the Archdiocese of Portland wrote that Measure 16 really was "selling murder in the name of mercy," and that if approved it-like Nazi euthanasia in the 1940s-might gradually be expanded to broader categories of people. Other religious organizations and leaders focused almost exclusively on what they saw as potential problems with the measure itself. Some went so far as to suggest that if the measure passed, "the right to die may well become the duty to die."

In fact, however, surprisingly little was written or spoken that described with philosophical or theological depth any of the moral and religious reasons for rejecting assisted suicide. The Coalition for Compassionate Care (the umbrella opposition organization) even seemed to make a strategic decision to avoid using religious arguments against Measure 16. After all, as some suggested, only about 30 percent of Oregonians claim any official religious affiliation, so an approach relying on religious arguments might actually alienate non-religious voters.

The absence of theological language was striking considering its essential place in the reasoning of many Christians who opposed the measure. This deficiency demonstrated a noticeable reluctance on the part of Christian leaders to engage the public in real moral dialogue.

Many in the medical community came out strongly against Measure 16, raising a clear moral refrain: Physicians are supposed to heal and help people, not kill them. Many also expressed concern about how such a law might transform the physician-patient relationship. But like their religious counterparts, medical leaders who opposed Measure 16 did little to illuminate the moral foundations of their understandings.

THERE ARE UNDOUBTEDLY many reasons why all the religious and medical opposition didn't sway enough Oregon voters in November. Yet it seems clear that countless voters weren't convinced because the very fabric of moral authority no longer has the pattern it once had. Along with a general decline in respect for our religious and medical institutions and professionals, many people no longer know or trust the major theological and medical positions on issues of death and dying. Instead of turning to theologians and physicians, thousands of Oregonians turned for their guidance to the moral authority of personal autonomy.

The passage of Measure 16 should certainly cause religious and medical communities to sit up and take notice of their own tenuous position as significant moral authorities. First, it should awaken the medical community to the fact that as more of us see with our own eyes the suffering involved in dying slowly from a terminal disease, we begin to question whether the professional medical codes of bygone days are still adequate. Faced with ever expanding technological sophistication at the boundaries of life, ordinary people want to have a voice in what it means to care for the dying.

Perhaps even more important, the approval of Measure 16 should make those of us in the Christian community rethink how we should "testify" to the general public. It was not only disingenuous to avoid theological language in the campaign, but it was also a missed opportunity to follow Paul's admonition to "let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another" (Ephesians 4:25).

However, speaking the "truth" to others should not mean trying to catch the attention of others by claiming we have cornered the market on the absolute truth. Rather, we should offer what we have to say as expressions of the ultimate values of God as revealed in Jesus. Had the Catholic Church and other religious groups in Oregon offered theologically informed guidance with the humble attitude of those seeking after the good, instead of theologically devoid guidance with the self-righteous attitude of those who already knew the good, perhaps the people of Oregon would have listened a bit more carefully.

We in the church must always remind ourselves that no moral revelation has ultimate authority, for all our human understandings of God's divine moral guidance are at best approximations of God's goodness and righteousness. We can still profit from the thoughts of Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught that while there is no such thing as Christian politics, there is an appropriate Christian attitude toward all political answers.

In the debates about physician-assisted suicide that arise in other states, I hope the religious communities there will take advantage of the opportunity we in Oregon missed to use the full resources and depths of our rich theological heritage to inform, inspire, and challenge all who seek to "do justice and love mercy."

MARK A. DUNTLEY JR. is chaplain and assistant professor of religious studies at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.


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