Rev. Peter A. Olsen
Rev. Rachel M. Zarnke
From the Pastor's Desk
I have had a number of people ask me lately how I feel about physician assisted suicide and the "right to die" legislation that makes the practice possible in several states. My initial response is to repeat what disciples of Jesus have always believed and taught: that life is a precious gift. It may be laid down for the sake of Jesus and for the sake of one's neighbor, but never selfishly destroyed. In my view, that position remains valid, but it does not address many of the issues that modern medicine has created for us. Our medical technology is a blessing in most respects. There are millions of people living full and meaningful lives today that just a century ago would probably have died in childhood. Scientific advances have made it possible for persons severely disabled by illness or accident to overcome their injuries and participate more fully in community.
But medicine has also created issues we have never had to face. It is now possible to feed a person who would not otherwise be able to eat through gastric tubing. We are now able through mechanical means to breathe for a person whose lungs have all but ceased to function. We can keep blood circulating by stimulating the heart or bypassing it altogether. Again, these techniques are wonderful when they give an individual the opportunity to recover from a severe injury and regain some measure of health. But what do we do when there seems to be no such prospect? It seems to me that artificially preserving a life that is all but lost dishonors God's gift of life every bit as much as terminating life giving treatment prematurely. But how can we ever be sure that no prospect of recovery exists? What degree of recovery justifies use of the extraordinary means describe above? I don't have answers to these questions and I suspect that each case must be weighed carefully, compassionately and prayerfully.
Assisted suicide takes us a step further than deciding not to use extraordinary means to prolong a human life (though I will admit that the distinction can sometimes become blurry). While I am sympathetic to the individual whose future holds nothing but unbearable physical agony relieved, if at all, only by powerful medication that carries with it side effects of its own, I am nonetheless profoundly uncomfortable with the notion that anybody should have the right to determine that a human life ought to terminated, even if that life is one's own. "My life. My decision," it has been said. But is that really so? I doubt that any of our decisions are freely and individually made. We make choices with the guidance and influence of family, friends and peers. Financial considerations inevitably enter into the picture. Societal expectations play a part in shaping how we decide matters. No parent wants to be a burden on his or her children. Those of us who care for elderly parents cannot help but feel the strain of that good work and, though we hate to admit it, a measure of resentment. I therefore worry that a decision to end one's own life might have more to do with guilt, financial anxiety and the loneliness and isolation in which so many people are forced to die than with unbearable and untreatable pain. I worry that the right to die might finally translate into the obligation to die.
I am not suggesting that Christians should try to repeal right-to-die legislation or make assisted suicide specifically illegal. I don't believe the law can help us much with this problem. What we do need are communities that prepare for death by living for the sake of the neighbor. We need communities that practice dying daily through confession, repentance and absolution. We need communities in which each individual, however sick or infirm, is loved and recognized as a precious member of Christ's Body. We need communities in which no one ever has to die alone. In short, what we need is church.