Friday, June 29, 2007

UCC to Study Physician-Assisted Death

National news reports recently focused on the release from a Michigan prison on June 1, 2007, of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. He is "most noted for publicly championing a terminal patient's right to die via physician-assisted suicide and claims to have assisted at least 130 patients to that end".

For background, see: "The Kevorkian Verdict: The Life and Legacy of the Suicide Doctor", a "Frontline" presentation aired by the Public Broadcasting System on May 14, 1996.

For one such article regarding the Doctor's release, see "Physician-Assisted Suicide Advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian to Be Released From Prison", published May 27, 2007, by the Associated Press & posted online by Fox News:

For nearly a decade, Dr. Jack Kevorkian waged a defiant campaign to help other people kill themselves. * * *

His actions prompted battles over assisted suicide in many states.

But as he prepares to leave prison June 1 after serving more than eight years of a 10- to 25-year sentence in the death of a Michigan man, Kevorkian will find that there's still only one state that has a law allowing physician-assisted suicide — Oregon. * * *

Opponents defeated a measure in Vermont this year and are fighting similar efforts in California. Bills have failed in recent years in Hawaii, Wisconsin and Washington state, and ballot measures were defeated earlier by voters in Washington, California, Michigan and Maine. * * *
That article notes a long-term effect of Dr. Kevorkian's strident advocacy on this issue:
Experts say the attention on assisted suicide has helped raise awareness caring for the terminally ill.

"End-of-life care has increased dramatically" in Oregon with more hospice referrals and better pain management, says Valerie Vollmar, a professor at Oregon's Willamette University College of Law who writes extensively on physician-assisted death.

Opponents and supporters of physician-assisted death say more needs to be done to offer hospice care and pain treatment for those who are dying and suffering from debilitating pain.

"The solution here is not to kill people who are getting inadequate pain management, but to remove barriers to adequate pain management," said Burke Balch, director of the Powell Center for Medical Ethics at the National Right to Life Committee, which opposes assisted suicide.

"We need to come up with better solutions to human suffering and human need," Balch said.

More end-of-life care is needed, but doctors should have a right to assist those who ask for their help in dying, Wanzer said. * * *
Against this backdrop of the doctor's release (for medical reasons), I noted a Press Release, issued June 27, 2007, entitled "UCC Synod Calls for Study of Physician-Assisted Death", by Micki Carter, posted by the United Church of Christ.

It reported on a UCC "churchwide conversation" at its General Synod sessions that took the form of a much-debated, then authorized, resolution for a "study on physician-assisted death".

The United Church of Christ, at every setting, was urged Tuesday afternoon to initiate study and conversation about the possibility of supporting the legal right of a terminally ill and mentally competent adult to receive medication to hasten death.

The original resolution, brought to GS26 from the Northern California Nevada Conference and the Congregational Church of Belmont, Calif., called for the UCC to affirm physician aid in dying. However, a difficult and sometimes contentious committee process -- and the firm objection of the UCC Disabilities Ministries -- led to the decision to call for a study of the issue instead. * * *
According to the Press Release, the debate raised concerns regarding disabled persons, the physician's role, theology & morality, medical need, technology, and personal suffering. The resulting compromise was adoption of a resolution that "calls for a report on the physician aid in dying issue to be presented to General Synod 27 in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2009."

Other church denominations are concerned with end-of-life care issues. For example, see:
  • "New institute at Duke focuses on end of life issues", dated March 3, 2000, by the United Methodist News Service -- "United Methodist-related Duke University has launched a program aimed at addressing end-of-life issues, such as the provision of quality care to people approaching death."
  • "Schiavo case underscores need for end-of-life discussion", dated March 31, 2005, by Rev. Larry Hollon, of the United Methodist Church -- "The past few weeks have been rough for me. The spectacle surrounding the Terri Schiavo case has evoked personal memories that cut deeply. I've thought about this intensely, prayed about it and tried to put it in perspective."
  • "Episcopal Church offers resources for end-of-life issues", from the Episcopal News Service, dated March 22, 2005 -- "While the Episcopal Church's General Convention has not specifically addressed the situation of Terri Schiavo -- the Florida woman who suffered severe brain damage in 1990 and has relied on a feeding tube to keep her alive since -- several resolutions have been passed regarding end-of-life issues. These include a 1991 resolution regarding prolongation of life. A helpful resource for Episcopalians seeking to understand the issues is the following book: Faithful Living, Faithful Dying: Anglican Reflections on End of Life Care."
  • "Articles About Dying", posted online by the Lutheran Partners magazine, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
On March 31, 2005, the UCC, too, had reacted to the death of Terri Schiavo, by issuing a statement entitled "UCC leader responds to Terri Schiavo's death". It included good advice for individuals:
The lesson we may want to take from this is the need for our pastors and congregations to encourage open discussion about end of life issues, and urge members -- regardless of age -- to make their wishes known, not merely in private conversation, but in living wills and durable powers of attorney that are shared forthrightly with all of one's closest relatives," Thomas said. * * *
Now -- at least within the UCC -- such discussions also will occur at the level of the church:
"The church really hasn't looked at the issue of end-of-the-life choices. I'm very pleased that the United Church of Christ, at every level, will be encouraged to expand the discussion of end-of-life issues and consider physician aid in dying in the very limited circumstances we have described. This gives us a way of moving ahead with a religious and moral dialogue."

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