Ever since the 1990s, when Oregon passed its Death with Dignity Act, I've been working to degrease its slippery slope. Under the law, physicians may give lethal drugs to patients with terminal illnesses who want to end their lives. The law's proponents have insisted it could only be offered to those who had 6 months or less to live, and was a safety valve when nothing else could be done to alleviate suffering. But not so anymore.
The Oregon Health Authority (which studies and keeps records on the Death with Dignity Act) now says, 'the law is best seen as a permissive law ... it does not compel patients to have exhausted all treatment options, or to continue current treatment. ... if the patient decides they don't want treatment, that is their choice.' In an eerie tone, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) said the law is 'silent on whether the patient must exhaust all treatment options.'
This spells bad news for people with chronic conditions such as muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, ALS or even diabetes. Many people with chronic conditions rely on medication or other supports to enable them to live for decades. But what if people with disabilities begin to despair of their condition? What if insurance runs out? Citing an example, the OHA said that if you are a diabetic in Oregon and decide to forgo insulin injections, you could qualify for a lethal prescription under the state's physician-assisted suicide law.
It is true that no one with diabetes has yet taken advantage of this new interpretation of the law, but the door is now open, inviting any Oregonian despairing of his disabling condition to test the law's new interpretation and request assisted suicide. Such cases are already successful in Canada and in Western Europe, showing how slick the slope is in Western industrialized nations.
This is one reason why I recently revised my book When Is It Right to Die? I wanted to give Christ-followers a keen understanding of the arguments surrounding physician-assisted suicide, as well as give them language for articulating a biblical worldview on life, no matter how disabled or elderly one's life might be. People are not 'better off dead than disabled," and life is worth living until God decides it is time.
Christians can provide life-encouraging alternatives to assisted suicide by providing hands-on support to persons with disabilities who are despairing of their lives. Christians can ascribe positive meaning to a person's affliction, prevent social isolation, help them deal with depression, provide spiritual community, and, in short, be a friend. This is compassionate care; not the administration of lethal drugs.
In 1997 the US Supreme Court ruled that there was no inherent 'right to die' in the U.S. Constitution. But that did not stop states from creating legislation based on people's perception of a 'right' to die. Oregon was the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide for mentally competent people with terminal illnesses. California, Colorado, Vermont and Washington also have enacted similar laws based on the Oregon model (Montana's Supreme Court ruled that nothing in state law prevents physicians from helping terminally ill patients end their lives).
People who feel overwhelmed by their chronic medical conditions do not need assisted-suicide; they need treatment for depression, good pain management, social community, support, help, hope and a purpose for living. Christians have the message that gives life meaning and helps people grasp that life is worth living. I pray Christians will do all they can to expose the dangers behind this new and chilling interpretation of a terminal illness.
Joni Eareckson Tada is one of the world's leading international advocates for people affected by disability. A diving accident in 1967 left her, then 17, a quadriplegic in a wheelchair. After two years of rehabilitation, she emerged with new skills and a fresh determination to help others in similar situations. She founded Joni and Friends in 1979, which quickly grew to provide Christ-centered programs to special needs families, churches and communities. Joni survived Stage 3 breast cancer in 2010 and still keeps a very active ministry schedule.
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