I believe in the sanctity of life. That means that human life shouldn’t be artificially ended from the “womb to the tomb.” United States society is filled with political activism, legislation, editorials, etc., on right-to-life. Right-to-life is another way of saying that abortion or the removal of unborn infant from the mother’s womb is wrong. I’m all for the right-to-life for an unborn child. To me abortion is immoral and certainly should be illegal.
Yesterday at church, a meeting was held for individuals who support right-to-life. Routinely, my church secures buses to take parishioners to marches for right to life in the state capital and in Washington, D.C. The churches decision to support right-to-life of an unborn child is good; however, almost never do I read about or see church activities that define or are supportive of life immediately prior to death, i.e., life before the tomb.
In the United States and most westernized nations, terminal care is relegated to health services organizations. Hospice care organizations are on the forefront of providing health care and support to individuals (and families) approaching the end of their lives. As a former health care provider, I’ve seen first-hand the dedication of women and men in hospice care.
The vast majority of hospice care organizations don’t offer euthanasia or any method to assist individuals to end their lives; but many healthcare professionals and organizations believe that individuals should be able to control the end of their lives, i.e., how they reach the tomb.
For example, the American Public Health Association “supports allowing a mentally competent, terminally ill adult to obtain a prescription for medication that the person could self-administer to control the time, place, and manner of his or her impending death.” The terminally ill person can then decide what they will do with the prescription medication that could end their life. By the time many terminally ill persons go through the process of getting this prescription, they decided to make use of it. On the other hand, some terminally ill individuals who have the assisted-suicide medication decide not to use it. They identified that having the medication was a comfort to them and that they wanted it “just in case.”
Right to die advocates have co-opted the discussion on assisted suicide by calling it “death with dignity.” Arguments for assisted suicide say that an individual should be allowed to seek and use medications that bring about a peaceful and dignified death. The Webster dictionary defines “dignity” as the quality of being honored and worthy. Several synonyms are self-respect, self-esteem, and poise. Few thinking American challenge the notion that death should be dignified. Yet, they challenge the argument that a dignified death can only occur via medications that assist suicide.
Currently eight states in the United States have laws that allow an individual to obtain assistance to end their life. Collectively, these laws are referred to as “Death with Dignity” laws. States are Oregon, Washington, Maine, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Vermont, and District of Columbia. Rules for obtaining assisted suicide medications in eligible states include:
- Participation is voluntary and individuals are considered on an individual basis.
- Individuals must be a minimum of 18 years of age and mentally competent.
- Be diagnosed with a terminal illness that under ordinary circumstances leads to death in six months.
- Each state’s Department of Health monitors the process.
- No government programs (i.e., Medicare, Medicaid) provide financial assistance.
- States don’t publish a list of physicians who prescribe assisted dying medications.
In the Bible, Job (8:14) said that death is the king of terrors. Apart from controlling how, when, and where we die via use of suicide-assisting medications, how can we escape being terrorized as we die? How can we die with dignity?
In my first job as a nurse educator, many of us worked a nine-month contract. The summer months we kept nursing skills current by working in a health service organization. A fellow instructor spent one summer working in a hospice organization. She told me about a woman she visited several times a week who was terminally ill. My friend rejoiced to see this woman dying in a contented, even happy, way. Through medications the woman was pain free; she never discussed taking medications to end her life. She was serene with her choices. She died with dignity.
After discussions with several persons I concluded the first step to accepting our own death is to think through our upcoming death until we stop denying that death will happen. Perhaps, this thinking-through is a type of desensitization. We cease to have an increased heart rate and physical fear reaction to what is familiar, in this case dying and death.
The second step, or perhaps parallel with step one, is knowing what we believe about an afterlife. Most religions, certainly Christian, Judeo, and Muslim, believe in an afterlife. From these perspectives, death isn’t the end; death is a step through a door to a newer, grander life than we currently experience.
My life is superlative. I am a Christian, an American, have a spiritual husband, and in reasonably good health. Despite all these blessings, I’m looking forward to going to an even better place—heaven. But, I’m not looking forward to entering heaven so much that I plan to kill myself. Life is sacred from the womb to the tomb.
I am concerned with all of the emphasis on right to life for the unborn, some religious organizations, even churches, neglect to provide sufficient care, solace, counseling to individuals who are dying and their families. In upcoming post, I hope to identify specific ways churches and religious organizations can support dying individuals.