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Quote of the Day: Theological Beliefs Force People to Endure Needless Suffering

assisted suicide
Cartoon by Ted Rall

Granting dying patients the power to determine when their lives will end has long been a serious point of contention with some American religious groups who view these right to die laws as government embracing a “culture of death.” Well-known right to die activists such as Jack Kevorkian have countered that religious ethics should not subvert sound medical reasoning. As of now, the argument against establishing right to die laws remains the dominant American position as only six states and the District of Columbia currently allow physicians to prescribe medications that hasten death. Another, more blunt way to put it, is that a theological belief is forcing millions of families and individual Americans to endure needless suffering that most of us spare our pets.

On its face, the religious objection to right to die laws is based on an otherwise morally praiseworthy worldview that all human life is sacred. Understanding how this seemingly positive belief became the chief impediment to ending so much needless human suffering presents a great lesson in the underlying conflict between science and dogmatic belief.

To be clear, I do not think this conflict needs be a zero-sum game. Indeed, the Constitution provides a great blueprint for how religious faith and science can interact in the same space to overall mutual benefit. Moreover, a strong argument can be made that a constant state of tension is how our market of ideas should function under. That said, I do agree with the critics of dogma such as neuroscientist and author Sam Harris in one very important respect; the main problem with dogma, no matter how benign, is that it is unresponsive to new evidence and discoveries.

The practical issue is the period in which most religious scripture takes place is centuries apart from the time period when modern science came about. Therefore, it is utterly impossible for scripture to take into account the evidence that modern science has produced. This places literal, dogmatic interpretation of spiritual text often in conflict with readily provable realities that modern science has revealed. For instance that the earth is billions, not thousands of years old. Often times, the descriptive conflict between religious dogma and modern science does not bear any direct impact on the everyday lives of most. When the subject matter spills into medical ethics however, the debate can have very real consequences.

— Tyler Broker, Above the Law, The Right to Die, March 12, 2019


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    I work in a hospital, until recently as a secretary on a geriatric unit, and the tragedy of families, doctors, nursing homes, and the Catholic health system keeping patients alive long past when their bodies have given out and their souls/spirits are ready to rest is nothing short of tragic. Everything from families keeping Grandma alive because they’re living off her Social Security checks to that it is a teaching hospital and so putting a feeding tube in an 89 year old woman who has lived in a nursing home for 15 years and doesn’t know who she is because a Resident can learn how to do that, and families that feel it’s not “God’s will” yet, except she’s hooked up to a BiPAP machine keeping her breathing in her sleep. Mmm. So many times the patients say they are tired and they just want the pain to stop. Or they have dementia and are calling for their mothers. It is heart-wrenching. Palliative care for end-of-life or even really-old people is nowhere near where it needs to be.

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    It does amaze me that so many people rely on information from a collection of writings penned 2000 or more years ago before most people even knew the earth is round and that the earth isn’t the center of the universe (or what a universe is). That people are making laws regarding people who are homosexual without understanding the science behind sexuality and gender (and no, that hasn’t been completely understood yet). So why don’t we, as humans, try to understand what evidence from scientific research reveals before making pronouncements about everything yet? Though I suppose I am asking too much as many people barely pay attention in science class in high school – and I have to say, my kids who took honors biology barely got a cursory explanation of evolution (and no we aren’t in a religious district) so I guess it’s no wonder so many religious dogmatists cling to religious creation mythology.

    I have medical directive instructions in place, and I still don’t think it’s enough to allow my family to make decisions I would like about end of life care.

    Ridiculous too that when my mom was in her final days, terminal with cancer, that the morphine doses had to be charred when in reality the kindest thing would have been to overdose her when she was obviously suffering for days and not in the least coherent and had instructed no heroic measures. Her body hung on several days longer than necessary, an agony for us all. And she was unable to communicate to us. Awful.

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    In 1978 when I was 21, I ended up in ICU with pneumonia after just starting my first full-time, on the books job. Since I didn’t have health insurance (my parent’s insurance paid the hospital bill, then kicked me off it; in those days it didn’t pay for doctors visits anyway) I went to a clinic at the hospital for aftercare because I could afford that.

    One visit I’d fallen asleep in the waiting area (these appointments were never on time). When I awoke, a very old woman in one of those old fashioned high-backed wooden and wicker wheel chairs asked me if I’d had a nice nap. We struck up a pleasant, brief conversation. I don’t know how old she was, but if I had to guess, it would be in her 80s. She was in the wheelchair, but we had a lucid, nice, conversation. I don’t think anything was wrong with her mind. I suspect her health wasn’t great; I have no idea if she was physically suffering.

    A few minutes later, a young woman–maybe 10-years older than I was then—came to get her. She looked at me and referring to the woman said something to the effect of, ‘oh, that’s my old aunt, we just can’t wait for her to hurry up and die.’ My stupid 21-year-old self didn’t say anything, but I was horrified and it probably showed on my face. I felt so bad for the older woman I’d spoken with. I still remember this after over 40 years. She may or may not have physically suffered, but I bet her day-to-day life was hell with that family.

    I am not religious at all and although went to church as a kid, I didn’t grow up imbued with this stuff. I completely agree with the author’s comments and with @Sally, but I have to say whenever I hear of anything like assisted suicide, I think of this old woman. I’m sure that if this had been allowed then in Cleveland, Ohio her family would have offed her in a New York minute.

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      And the point, Maloyo? Are you saying that care needs to improve but that the offer of assistance to die is not appropriate? Sounds to me like the old woman you spoke of would represent herself with grace and probably good humour in the face of ignorant suggestions from family. I for one would not reject the offer but welcome my family reminding me that I am in control of my own body.
      Sounds like you believe that the ability to end your own life appropriately and with dignity is not what would happen and people would ‘offer’ their elderly kin to be murdered…. I don’t think that would happen very often and certainly there are all kinds of safeguards. Christians like to think in black and white and ‘culture of death’. It is this kind of bully-belief arena that we endure loss of human freedom to choose.

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        Brian, I just typed out a long reply and realized that I can condense it to this: I am okay with medically assisted suicide for capable people who ask for it, but I don’t think it should “offered” as another treatment choice. Care needs improve, but sometimes that means comfort, not additional “treatment.”

        Yes, I do think that “people would ‘offer’ their elderly kin to be murdered” in cases like the old lady I spoke about (you didn’t hear the contempt in her niece’s voice) and finally I am not a Christian nor do I practice or believe in any religion.

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    The evangelicals want and demand that everyone has to suffer like Jesus did on the cross. Jesus didn’t suffer for months or years. I can honestly say I hate evangelicals. I’ve had enough of them and their religion of hatred and torture.

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    If you talk to a lot of these old folks about their dogma, you will often find something else underlying their concern about checking out of life. The fear that their relatives want them dead as quickly as possible so they can get grandma’s money and property. The old folks believe their relatives will work really hard to get them dead much earlier than they want to go. You know:

    “Doctor, I jist looked at grandmaw real careful like this mornin’, and she looks real bad off to me. I think hit’s time. Now you go git that needle and git on with it Doc.

    Why Fred, I jist saw your grandma 10 minutes ago. She was a watchin’ the Beverly Hillbillies, laughing her ass off, and swilling some of that moonshine Buford snuk in. What are you up to Fred?

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    There are too many (in my opinion) comments about relatives who want to off someone because ‘money’. For those who say such things I suspect they’ve never had to watch a loved one die by inches or lived themselves with chronic pain.

    How can I make such assumptions? Well, when pain and sickness occupy every minute of every day ones perspective changes.

    Of course a healthy person would not be euthanized ‘just because’. There are protocols and forms (oh so many forms) to complete when someone is sick. Healthy folk don’t know about such things. Why would they?

    If euthanasia was legal in my state my late husband could have avoided so much agony and humiliation as his body was slowly consumed from the inside by cancer. But hey, quantity over quality, amirite?

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Bruce Gerencser