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Aided Suicide Historically Opposed by Major Faiths

Euthanasia: Kevorkian put spotlight on debate, but religious opposition to assisted deaths follows centuries of beliefs.

May 18, 1996|From Religion News Service

Acquitted Tuesday of violating Michigan law against assisted suicide, Dr. Jack Kevorkian wasted no time in drawing a distinction between the religious and secular dimensions of euthanasia.

"What this proves is that, while this may be a sin to you," Kevorkian told reporters after his acquittal, "one thing is clear: For any enlightened human being, this can never be a crime."

But Kevorkian's assertion that opponents of euthanasia remain spiritually and intellectually in the dark ignores a long history of thoughtful religious opposition to assisted dying.

Ancient Near Eastern religions have generally opposed euthanasia with little exception for thousands of years.

Although liberal Protestants and Reform Jews tend to believe that such intimate decisions are best left to the individual conscience, traditional Catholic, Jewish and Muslim teachings on suicide--and, by extension, on euthanasia--have run closely parallel for centuries. With few exceptions, they oppose a decision to end one's life as well as giving assistance to anyone who would make such a decision.

"It goes right back to the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill,' " said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of anti-abortion activities for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

That exhortation, from Chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus, was expanded by the early Christian fathers to include euthanasia.

St. Augustine's uncompromising position on euthanasia was colored in part by his theological battle with the Donatists--a sect with a passionate, almost suicidal penchant for martyrdom.

"No one should voluntarily take his own life in order to free himself from temporal suffering," St. Augustine wrote, "since he will fall into eternal sufferings."

In this century, the Catholic Church has maintained Augustine's uncompromising stance.

Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae," attacked what the pontiff referred to as the "culture of death" and called euthanasia "a grave violation of the law of God."

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John Paul noted, however, that Catholic teaching distinguishes euthanasia from the ending of "aggressive medical treatment" for terminally ill people--treatment that would buy negligible extra life at exorbitant cost to the dying person's family.

"To forgo extraordinary or disproportionate means is not the equivalent of suicide or euthanasia," John Paul wrote. "It rather expresses acceptance of the human condition in the face of death."

Like Catholicism, traditional Jewish teaching regards human life as sacred and makes a similar distinction between "active euthanasia"--including physician-assisted suicide--and the cessation of futile medical procedures.

Physicians and family are allowed to end "extraordinary" treatment only after the physician has determined that a patient has entered into "goses," the condition of imminent death. A patient is in goses--according to the Talmud, a collection of authoritative Jewish writings--when he or she can no longer swallow saliva. Ordinarily, such a person will have died within three days.

Otherwise, anyone who helps euthanize a dying person has committed "a capital offense" of murder, as Moses Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah, a code of Jewish law compiled in 1180.

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However, Jewish teaching offers slightly more legal sanction for euthanasia than Catholicism. Both Maimonides and the Babylonian Talmud recognized a right of euthanasia for someone who is in goses after being mortally wounded.

Orthodox and Conservative Jews tend to hew closely to the law when considering such questions. But, says Rabbi Beth Singer of Temple De Hirsch-Sinai in Seattle, "Reform Jews look to the tradition and follow their own individual dictates."

Singer's temple joined an ACLU friend of the court brief advocating a right to die in a case challenging a Washington state statute that made physician-assisted suicide a felony. In March, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down the law, ruling for the first time that terminally ill people have a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. A month later, a federal appeals court in New York recognized the same right when it overturned a New York law against physician-assisted suicide.

Singer says many Reform Jews would favor physician-assisted suicide when all medical attempts at recovery have failed, the patient's suffering is unabated, and "science and technology can play a compassionate role in assisting one's death."

But even among Reform Jews there are differences of opinion. For example, some might oppose physician-assisted suicide in light of the Holocaust. Many Reform Jews have decided that they "can't play God"--any more than the Nazi physicians who used Jews as human guinea pigs in unconscionable experiments, Singer says. "Where do you draw the line between who deserves to live and who doesn't?" she asked.

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