The Cult of Death and California’s Physician-Assisted Suicide

on June 18, 2018

Last month, a Riverside County Judge put a hold on California’s practice of physician-assisted suicide. As part of a lengthy legal battle, Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia ruled that the law legalizing physician-assisted suicide was unconstitutional because it exceeded the bounds of the special legislative session that passed it. This immediately halted implementation of the law.

The law is modeled after Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act of 1997 with some minor additions. Under California’s law, a patient can be prescribed a life-ending drug by their doctor if they were determined by two doctors to be terminally ill with less than 6 months to live. Patients must be physically able to swallow the medication themselves when it is given to them.

Much of the impetus for passing the law resulted from the publicity around Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman who in 2014 was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given six months to live. She became the face of the right-to-die movement as she argued for the option to die before her life became too painful to enjoy. She chose to move to Oregon, one of the four states where assisted suicide was legal at the time, where she killed herself in November 2014. Shortly thereafter, a bill was introduced to the California legislature. Governor Jerry Brown cited his hesitation to support the bill given his Jesuit background but ultimately signed it into law on October 5, 2015.

Immediately after the law came into effect on June 9, 2016, religious groups and disability rights advocates challenged it in court. Opponents of physician-assisted suicide point at the incentives it creates for insurance companies to encourage patients to request death for financial reasons. As Marilyn Golden of Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund puts it “There is a deadly mix between our broken, profit-driven healthcare system and the legalization of assisted suicide, which would immediately become the cheapest treatment.”

This was exactly the case with Barbara Wagner in Oregon under the similar law. If human life is reduced to an economic figure, it follows naturally that we have an obligation to end it as soon as it becomes enjoyable in order to trim down the budget.

Another constant concern is the chance that the patient will be misdiagnosed or some other mistake will lead to an unforeseen death. In Oregon in 2000, Michael Freeland was granted the lethal drugs despite a 43-year history of depression and suicide attempts because the doctors did not think that a psychiatric evaluation was necessary.

One of the strongest voices against physician-assisted suicide is Father Philip Johnson. In 2008, he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer at the age of 24 and given a year to live. Almost a decade later, he was ordained as a Deacon in the Catholic Church. Speaking from experience, he testified before a Connecticut legislature considering physician-assisted suicide laws and said:

They [the terminally ill] feel, as I have often felt, that they are a burden on their families and on society, so an earlier death becomes a temptation.  This is not a mindset where someone should be presented by society and the law to consider taking their own life.  On the contrary, in my experience ministering to the sick, I have noticed that once they are surrounded by those who love them and have adequate pain management, they stop wanting to die.

Christians have always been staunch defenders of the immutable value of human life. The Catholic Church has notably fought against any form of euthanasia citing the immense theological backing behind the church’s long-held beliefs. Most Protestant denominations are united in their opposition to so-called “active euthanasia,” as the Presbyterian Church USA puts it where an agent intentionally ends the life of a patient, but they allow “passive euthanasia” where one simply ceases to care for an already dying patient and lets them die naturally. This position is also held by the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the United Methodist Church. Others such as the Southern Baptist Convention continue to reject suicide in any form and refer to a “culture of death” that has come to permeate our society.

The California law goes beyond even “passive euthanasia” by having doctors intentionally recommend death to still functioning people. The Catholic Church in California issued a statement condemning the law when it was passed in 2015 and again last month when it was overturned. Local leaders such as Rick Warren, pastor of the massive Saddleback Church came out it opposition to the law. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore wrote a heartfelt piece opposing the law.

Moore describes a “Cult of Death” in America, a mindset that looks only at the material value of a body. Our culture constantly tells us that life is about achieving happiness, about squeezing every last bit of pleasure out of every single day. We are told to “Carpe Diem” with our only end being our personal exultation. With that premise, an actor is proportionally less valuable when they lack the functions necessary to achieve personal pleasure.

Those most vulnerable to this bloodthirsty mindset are the disabled. In America, as high as 90 percent of preborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted, while other nations such as Denmark and Iceland have rates close to 100 percent.

Statistics from Oregon demonstrate this belief that happiness is the only justification for living. The most cited reason for patients to request suicide was that they were “Less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable.”  As Moore puts it “if one cannot bear the burden of an immobile body, an unwanted child, or an unresponsive spouse, you can just ease the transition from consciousness to annihilation. That’s not just a political position. It is a religion.”

This religion is quickly spreading. In the first six months of the law in California, 111 people killed themselves. Colorado and Washington D.C. have recently legalized physician-assisted suicide and over two dozen states are considering passing similar laws. Canada passed a national law in 2016, and Europe has rapidly been expanding its acceptance of euthanasia. In America, a 2016 study found that 69 percent of Americans found physician-assisted suicide to be permissible with 42 percent of Evangelicals agreeing. Even the American Medical Association, who have traditionally held that doctors are violating their obligations by killing patients is considering a change in their policy.

Choosing to die when life becomes difficult can be an extraordinarily tempting option, but the Bible speaks about the value of life numerous times. For mankind, death is the ancient curse inherited from the fall. In Genesis 2:17, God says “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

Death is not natural at all, it is not something for us to worship or glorify. Proverbs 8:35-36 says “For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death.”

The story of Jesus’ resurrection is crucial to our understanding of death because in rising again, he offers us salvation. Hebrews 2:14-15 explains this when it says “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”

Christians are called to trust in God in our battle against death. Paul encourages us in I Corinthians 15:26 that “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”

Even with all this support, Christians are still tempted by death. Death means a reunification with God and an end to the suffering we inevitably struggle with in this world. Paul grapples with this issue in Philippians 1, but reassures us that we have an obligation to live for Christ.

The Bible offers a more meaningful end for our actions than our own pleasure. I Corinthians 10:31 tells us “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”

This is the proper alternative to the growing Cult of Death. It is a life built on the foundation of Jesus Christ being expressed through Christian values and teachings. (My IRD colleague Jayda Wyse discusses the hope Christian community to those struggling with suicidal thoughts here.) The value of a human life is divorced from its pecuniary or material capabilities because it is rooted in God’s divine image. This is how life has meaning beyond the individual hedonism that inevitably leads to suicide once life is no longer pleasurable.

Californians will now have to wait and see what happens as the law remains in limbo. Judge Ottolia granted a request from the District Attorney to hear a separate motion on the decision on June 29. This case represents a crucial moment in the legal framework supporting America’s increasing acceptance of physician-assisted ssuicide.

No comments yet

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.