Health

Major religions oppose assisted suicide

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In the battle over legislation that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in California, the Catholic Church has been vocal in its opposition to the measure. But all major religions say helping a terminally ill patient hasten death with medication would violate their basic tenets.

Among the Abrahamic religions, the opposition to assisted suicide is based on the concept that only God should be able to end life, experts say.

"Life is a gift from God and life comes from God. And only God has the right to terminate...life," says Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, religious director of the Islamic Society of Orange County and chairman of the Islamic Law Council of North America. "So a person should not take his own life or not take anyone else['s] life."

Jason Moss, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, uses similar language in explaining the opposition to assisted suicide among Judaism's main branches.

"Preserving life is the most important aspect in Judaism," says Moss. "In fact it supersedes many other of the commandments that we follow to the point that life is the most sacred thing we have. It's a gift from God and the body itself is not traditionally seen as somebody’s own - it’s seen as a vessel to hold the soul that God gave."

"Bad Karma"

Siddiqi's and Moss' views are consistent with the findings of a 2013 Pew Research Center survey of religious leaders, scholars and ethicists that found most are against euthanasia, assisted suicide and mercy killing.

The physician-assisted suicide bill is SB 128, authored by Democratic Sens. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) and Lois Wolk (D-Davis). It would allow a doctor to prescribe life-ending medication to a terminally ill patient who has six months to live or less.

The world's other two large religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, also oppose assisted suicide, because of their belief in karma and reincarnation.

Both religions believe that karma is the sum of our behavior, and our behavior has consequences. So good deeds bring about good things in this life and the next, and vice versa. And Hinduism and Buddhism believe any type of killing is a bad deed.

Creating "bad karma" affects reincarnation, according to Hindus and Buddhists. In these religions, the goal is to progress to ever higher levels of enlightenment through reincarnation.   Participating in assisted suicide would disrupt that process, according to Nadadur Vardhan, president of the Hindu Temple Society of Southern California.

"Killing interferes, it does not allow the soul to progress," explains Vardhan. "What we want is for the soul to be liberated," he notes, adding that committing suicide "brings bad karma to the killer." 

Breaking ranks

Opposition to assisted suicide is not universal among organized religions. The United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist church allow it, on the grounds that individuals have the right to choose for themselves.

And there are those among the mainline faiths who have broken ranks on this issue, such as Dr. Ignacio Castuera, a retired Methodist Pastor. 

"I do not understand any kind of deity that would want to see his or her children suffer," says Castuera. "If there is any way of easing the death I would think that God would be in favor of that."

Castuela says his views grew from his years ministering to dying AIDS patients at Hollywood United Methodist Church during the height of the AIDS epidemic. He has become one of the most vocal religious voices in support of SB 128.  Castuela sits on the board of Compassion & Choices, an organization pushing the California bill and similar measures across the country.

The prominent Swiss Catholic scholar Hans Kung is another religious figure who has broken with his church on assisted suicide.  He has Parkinson’s disease and has been outspoken about his intention to end his life if he feels the time is right.

In a 2013 interview with the German newspaper Spiegel, Kung agreed with his church that "life is a gift from God," while adding, "But God has made me responsible for this gift...The God of the Bible is a god of compassion and not a cruel despot who wants to see people spend as much time as possible in a hell of their own pain. In other words, assisted suicide can be the ultimate, final form of helping in life."

Tommy Givens, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Seminary, says this thinking can be found among many Christians, particularly some Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians. Their views are shaped in part by what is going on in society, he argues.

"So there's a willingness to revisit traditional commitments that supposedly come from the Bible by the light of what the cultural experience and discourse is producing," says Givens.

Palliative care vs. a "conscious death"

 All of the religious figures interviewed for this story said there are circumstances in which physician-assisted death might be acceptable, such as when an individual is unable to live without machines or has been determined to be brain dead.

Beyond assisted suicide, there are differences in how faiths view end of life choices.

Religious leaders are mostly in agreement over what they term "passive euthanasia," when a terminally ill patient refuses food or medical treatment, which is not considered the same as taking action to hasten death. 

And opposition to SB 128 should not be mistaken for a support of suffering, notes the Jewish Federation's Moss, who endorses palliative care and hospice as ways to help minimize patients' pain and keep them as comfortable as possible. 

But the Hindu Society's Vardhan argues that in Hindu tradition, any care that reduces alertness - including some forms of palliative care - should be avoided because it takes away from experiencing a "conscious death." He maintains Hindus must experience life through its last moments to have a good transition into the next life.

In Sacramento, SB 128 is on hold while the Senate appropriations committee waits for a report about how much it would cost. If the committee approves the bill, it will go to the full Senate for a vote.

While the Catholic church has been the most vocal against the legislation, Siddiqi of the Islamic Center hopes other faiths will get involved.

"I hope there will be enough people of conscience who will raise objections," says Siddiqi. "Most of the religious people will have the same position I am having:...our Judeo Christian, Abrahamic tradition...is very important about the protection of human life."