Article Mar 1, 2017

What I said to my state's legislators about assisted suicide

New Mexico is known as the nation’s late-term abortion capital. No surprise, legislation is in motion here for physician assisted suicide. Bill HB-171 would allow doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to patients they deem mentally competent and within six months of death. Patients then self-administer the drug.

Others were present—including physicians and attorneys—to offer their perspectives to our state’s Health Committee reviewing the bill. As a pastor representing Bible-believing evangelical Christians, these were the remarks I prepared:[1]

I’m here as a pastor from Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque. I also coordinate network of 30 pastors in our region. Representing these pastors and their churches, I stand in opposition to the End of Life Options Act.

I owe you three things this morning.

1. I owe you a word of thanks.

Thank you to the NM House Health Committee for seeking to discern and serve the best interests of our state. To the physicians who are with us, thank you for caring for the sick. Tyler is my 39-year-old brother. After multiple open-heart surgeries, he contracted meningitis in the hospital at 18 months old. Today he is severely mentally handicapped. You are brilliant, you work hard for us, you deal frequently in difficult ambiguities, and we need you. Thank you. To those here who have suffered and are suffering, we grieve with you. Death is cruel. As a pastor, I’ve seen it up close. This topic is not abstract to me or for any of us.

To the committee, I owe you a second thing.

2. I owe you a word of truth.

This bill springs from a noble motive and moral imperative: compassion. May we never tire of doing right from compassion. But it crosses a bright line that we shall not cross together, friends. Physicians should treat fellow human beings in the course of death. Physicians must never treat the suffering with death. This line is clear, ancient, tested, needed and unambiguous.

A familiar verse in scripture limits our choices in a compassionate way: “You shall not murder.” This is difficult to say, but suicide is self-murder, and assisted suicide—however motivated—is a form of murder. Job’s wife said to him, “curse God and die.” He did not. Rather, he “fear[ed] God and turn[ed] away from evil.” We are not self-created and so we shall not self-destruct.

Moral terms and categories fill this discussion; we need to reflect on this one.

God’s command against murder stands on two pillars.

  • The first pillar: human worth. We are not animals. They can kill and eat one another. We can put them to sleep. But there is a reason we have hospitals and oaths and compassion. There is a reason why we are here today. We are human beings—creatures of inestimable worth. My brother’s dignity, for example, is not from any capacity he possesses or contribution he makes, but from his status as one made in God’s image.
  • The second pillar: the human flaw. Not only are we limited as finite beings, but we are limited as fallen and flawed beings. There is a reason we need this command against murder. Humans can break terribly bad. The Bible calls it sin. Others call it human nature. We might call it the evening news and 20th century history. We may not agree on what to call it, but we should all agree that human beings, marvelous though we are, are capable of the most heinous evil—the taking of life.  

Given human nature, while this bill has a compassionate beginning, it is fanciful thinking that this bill will serve only compassionate ends. As with any bill, we need to consider both the intentions of the bill, but also the unintended consequences that we can reasonably expect from this bill.

  • It will also serve commercial ends. For financially-driven third parties in a finance driven industry, shorter lives are cheaper lives. This bill will be good for business and bad for patients.
  • It will also serve ends of convenience. Our age does not value age. The aging are made to feel unneeded and unwanted. Who can’t hear the elderly mother saying to herself, “I’m such a burden to my busy son. I know I’m disgusting. He has a young family and bills to pay. Is it time for me to go?” This bill will be bad for the elderly.
  • It will also serve cruel ends. Inside this bill is a poison pill which connects compassion to intentional death. By advancing this bill we advance that logic. How will the next generation apply this bill’s legal logic of compassion? What about the deformed infant or the elderly with Alzheimer’s who can’t ask for the prescription? Shouldn’t someone decide for them? Many countries have already answered these questions. What begins as a compassionate option for patients will end as a “compassionate” duty for physicians.
  • And, yes, because of the human flaw, coercive ends. Here I am concerned particularly about particular minority communities, rural communities, the poor and the disabled—those who as a matter of capacity or culture are more vulnerable to persuasion and suggestion, who more readily defer to authority of all kinds.

My friends, this is a bad bill. Like a Trojan horse, its protections conceal its deadly logic.

Let us pursue compassion, tirelessly! But, please, do not lead us into a partnership with death. Do not turn your head to the logic present in this bill and where it leads. Do not ask us to allow our doctors to prescribe deadly poison. Life is theirs to heal if they can. It is not theirs to take if they can’t.

3. I owe you a word of welcome.

If you are suffering, I welcome you to come into our churches; come to my church, and see how we love one another. See how we care for our sick, our elderly, our deformed, our orphans and widows, the poor, the weak. Let us love you. You are not a burden. Your life, every moment you have, is a blessing for us and a sacred trust.

If you care for the suffering, I welcome you to send them to our churches. We have an answer for hopelessness. A man walked through our door 18 months ago with terminal cancer. We helped him get right with people. More importantly we helped him get right with his Maker. He died a painful, terrible dead. I was there. It was also an honorable and dignified death.

We don’t help people die. We help people die well.

So, send us your suffering. We have something to offer them—we have Someone to offer them; a savior who suffered affliction and death; our great physician, who mends our souls even as our minds and bodies fail.

Finally, a word about Tyler

With dropping blood pressure, Tyler was taken from his nursing home to the ICU. A state away, my mom arrived five hours later. She had been through this before. But this time, when she arrived, no ordinary care was underway. Why not? Because Tyler had “do-not-resuscitate” orders. Which they translated into do-not-treat orders. Here are the words my mom—Tyler’s mom—heard when she arrived: “You have some decisions to make, ma’am. Think about the quality of his life.” Yet, they hadn’t taken the first step toward a diagnosis.

After several days, Tyler was sent home on hospice to die a painful death. That was 10 years ago, and he’s with us today. It was a mistake—a misdiagnosis. It was also a familiar experience. Tyler contracted meningitis as a baby because of a doctor’s mistake. We have never held it against the doctor. Medical professionals are marvelous human beings. And like all human beings, they are finite, and they are flawed.

A vote for this bill is a vote for its logic. And the logic of this bill has my brother in its crosshairs. No, this bill will not permit a prescription for my brother Tyler. But its logic, in due time, will.    

Death is an enemy. It is not an “option.” We reject The End of Life Options Act.

Notes

  1. ^ This is an expansion on what I was able to say that day. Time, in these circumstances, doesn't always allow a full testimony.