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Moyers’ PBS series on death draws lament on assisted suicide segment

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Bill Moyers’ recent PBS television series on death and dying tackles important issues but is slanted in its presentation of physician-assisted suicide, two leading Southern Baptist experts on the controversial topic say.

The series, “On our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying,” aired on four consecutive nights from Sept. 10 through Sept. 13 on most PBS stations. Two years in production, the six-hour series covers a wide range of topics, including hospices, palliative care and advances in medical technology. In the third episode — titled “A Death of One’s Own — Moyers interviews two terminally-ill patients and their families. Both patients prefer an early death through physician-assisted suicide.

But C. Ben Mitchell, a consultant to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and William Cutrer, a licensed obstetrician and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor, say physician assisted suicide must be opposed.

“To present assisted death as a means of dealing with the end of life is irresponsible and harmful,” Mitchell said. “When dying patients feel that their only option is assisted suicide, we have failed them. Our medical system has failed them. Many dying patients fear pain, isolation, abandonment, loss of control and being a burden on others. Our attention must be focused on addressing and reliving those fears, not giving in to them.”

Cutrer, the C. Edwin Gheens Associate Professor of Christian Ministry at Southern Seminary, agreed.

“It’s a violation of the sanctity of life and the value of personhood,” he said. “With euthanasia, you’re asking the doctor either to pull the plug or push the button to kill somebody. With physician-assisted suicide, you’re just having the doctor give you the weapons so you can use them yourself. The intent of those medications is to kill the patient. … From the biblical perspective, that is the willing taking of a human life. That’s not part of our duty in life. We’re entitled to relieve pain and do our very best with that.”

Both Cutrer and Mitchell praised Moyers for producing the series. Cutrer said that “there was value for people to watch” the series, while Mitchell said much of the series “showed patients and caregivers who were nothing less than heroic.”

But both criticized how the series’ presented physician-assisted suicide. The third episode begins with Moyers interviewing a Louisiana man diagnosed with ALS, better knows as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It eventually leads to paralysis. The man has lost all movement except for his upper body, and he wants to die after he loses control of his arms. Because physician-assisted suicide is illegal in Louisiana, the man will need help in killing himself. His wife, the caregiver, says she will not do it.

“I’m going to have to do it before I would really rather do it, and that’s not fair,” he tells his doctor.

Moyers then interviews a 56-year-old Oregon woman who has uterine cancer. Given several months to live, she wants to take advantage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. She lives alone and has set in motion the necessary procedures that will lawfully allow a doctor to assist her in suicide. In her final hours she wants the doctor to mix a lethal dose of a drug into water that she will then drink.

After the Louisiana man loses control of his limbs and begins to struggle with breathing, he refuses medication and food, and dies soon thereafter. After the Oregon woman’s condition worsens, her daughters call the doctor, who makes the lethal mix. The woman struggles to swallow it, and soon dies. The episode does not show either death.

“If Americans continue to embrace the culture of death, the hospice and palliative care movements will die too,” Mitchell said. “We have to put our money and energies in hospice and palliation, not in physician-assisted death. You cannot at the same time treat a patient with dignity and help them kill themselves. Sadly, On Our Own Terms is a misnomer. Assisted suicide requires someone else’s help. Physicians, who are supposed to be healers, are co-opted to become killers.”

Cutrer pointed to the Netherlands as an example of what happens when a society embraces physician-assisted suicide.

“We’ve got a track record from the Netherlands with what happens when physician-assisted suicide is OK’d,” he said. “You went from doctors administering it to other people administering it for them. The so-called slippery slope argument has demonstrated itself to be true. The guidelines for how people got into the program — they had to be clearheaded, they had to sign papers — all those rules started being skipped and worked around. Our fear of what would happen should this become legalized is certainly demonstrated in that experience.”

Cutrer said there are other concerns to legalizing physician-assisted suicide. One is that patients who are simply depressed will be assisted in killing themselves.

“The Christian Medical Association has shown that one of the key problems [with] people who are inquiring about physician-assisted suicide has to do with depression,” Cutrer said. “It’s the fear of being a burden — a financial burden, a psychological burden — to their family. We don’t generally treat depression and fear of being a burden by killing the patient. We need to treat the depression. Studies have shown that when the depression is lifted and people have a good family support system, they desire to live. They’re not in a big hurry to die. We have made a nobility out of [not] being a burden to your family.”

Another concern of legalizing physician-assisted suicide, Cutrer said, is that a cost-conscious managed care health system would begin dictating who lives and who dies.

“It is not cost effective to keep somebody alive, and so it’s cheaper to terminate their life,” he said.

A Christian’s faith can play a large role, Cutrer said. That point was highlighted by the Oregon woman’s belief in reincarnation. “I’m going to have to do it again,” she says in the series. “I hope I come back with my daughters and my granddaughter.”

The Louisiana man had a Christian daughter who was opposed to her father’s wishes. “The spiritual side of me says that’s God’s decision,” she says. “That’s between you and God, dad, and when God deems it necessary, then that’s when it’s going to happen.”

Said Cutrer, “Even though we have the confidence as to how and where we will spend eternity, we realize that there is value to living now. All suffering is not bad. Suffering and tribulation develops character and hope, and the comfort we receive is extended to others. As we comfort and compassionately care, we demonstrate and grow in Christlikeness. The experience of life — the highs and the lows — has great value.”

Mitchell said Christians can win the debate on physician-assisted suicide in a number of ways, including: spending time with dying family and friends; providing support for caregivers; volunteering for hospices and starting Christian hospices.

“Tell the stories of patients who died well,” he said. “We must meet the morbid and macabre with the light of truth. Families who give of themselves to care for their terminal loved ones need to be recognized for their love and compassion.”

Christians should also get involved in the public arena when laws pertaining to physician-assisted suicide arise, Mitchell said. On the national scale, he said Christians should support the Pain Relief Promotion Act (HR 2260, S 1272), which he said “promotes pain management and palliative care for the terminally ill and would continue to forbid the use of federally controlled substances for assisted suicide and euthanasia.”

“Citizens in Maine will vote on assisted suicide in November,” he said. “If the purveyors of death establish those states [Oregon and Maine] as bookends, they will move rapidly toward the center. Your state could be next.”

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  • Michael Foust