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Physician-assisted suicide becomes state-level battle

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold two states’ bans on physician-assisted suicide, while “on target,” will “refocus the battle on the states,” said an expert in Christian ethics.
“I think that whatever state passes that legislation first, it will be model legislation for many of the other states,” said Ben Mitchell, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., who spoke on physician-assisted suicide to a group of physicians and nurses June 27 at the Baptist Medical Center, Little Rock, Ark. Mitchell also is a bioethics consultant with the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“There is very wide public support for assisted suicide,” Mitchell lamented, noting he wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s inevitable such a law will be passed by some state.
“But I think that unless we double or triple our efforts to educate and inform the public, we’ll see somebody pass assisted-suicide legislation,” Mitchell said.
Oregon residents will vote in November on legislation to outlaw physician-assisted suicide. The outcome of that vote is uncertain, Mitchell said, especially considering that 51 percent of Oregonians favored permitting the practice in a 1994 vote. The measure has since been tied up in court challenges.
One legitimate fear about allowing physician-assisted suicide is there would be no stopping the euthanasia juggernaut, Mitchell said, noting that is precisely what has happened in The Netherlands, which has permitted physician-assisted suicide since the late 1980s.
Since 1991, there has been a 25 percent increase in involuntary euthanasia in that country, according to a Dutch study detailed in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
From that study, Mitchell noted one case where a doctor admitted killing a patient who did not request euthanasia.
In the physician’s words, Mitchell quoted, “It could have taken another week before she died. I just needed this bed.”
The most compelling argument supporters of physician-assisted suicide use is the argument of suffering, Mitchell reported. Studies have shown that when someone is diagnosed as terminally ill, doctors and nurses typically spend diminishing amounts of time with that patient. One reason, Mitchell said, is that it is a coping mechanism.
“(Doctors and nurses) have invested themselves, their energy, their emotions, their time to those patients,” Mitchell said. “Then they realize the patient is going to die. You distance yourself and it’s to be expected.
“But not only do physicians and nurses do that, many times families do that, certainly neighbors do that and friends do that. No wonder dying patients often feel unwanted. They’re alienated, they’re isolated.”
Mitchell quoted Edmund Pellegrino, a Christian physician, who said “much of the suffering in dying patients comes from being suddenly treated as non-persons.”
Christians must do a better job of helping the terminally ill with their suffering, Mitchell said.
“We must not, from one side of our mouth, say we’re against assisted suicide and not do something about the isolation, the suffering, the pain regarding (terminally ill) patients,” he said.

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  • David Smith