By Jim Witters
A Village Life Exclusive
For Robert and Vivian Cron, the issue is an easy one: If the pain becomes unbearable or prolonging life becomes too "ugly," terminal patients should have the right to choose death over a demeaning continued existence.
But the issue is far from easy for many Americans. As the Supreme Court hears arguments on the subject this week, theologians, ethicists and doctors are continuing to debate whether assisted suicide should be legalized.
Cron, a 74-year-old from Oldsmar, Florida, is dying of mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. The cancer forms a coating over the outside of the lung, eventually incapacitating the patient.
Diagnosed just two years ago, Cron has steadily deteriorated. Now he cannot walk and finds is difficult to swallow. The Crons, who once traveled extensively, no longer even go out to dinner. Cron is heavily dependent on codeine for pain relief, but the drug leaves him constantly drowsy, almost narcoleptic.
The emotional toll on both of them has been tremendous. Cron gives way to uncontrollable weeping from time to time. His wife, often exhausted from the sheer responsibility of providing 24-hour support, cannot stifle her tears either.
The Crons, members of the Hemlock Society since 1987, are part of a Florida lawsuit seeking to declare invalid the state's ban on physician assisted suicides.
"My husband is not fighting for the right to die," Mrs. Cron said. "He is fighting for his right to die, if he chooses. And he is fighting for the rights of others to make that decision for themselves."
Across the United States, battles rage over the moral, medical, legal, religious and ethical implications of assisted suicide. Even as the total number of lives ended by Dr. Jack Kervorkian's through assisted suicide campaign exceeds 40, 44 states have outlawed the practice, one (Oregon) has legalized it and two cases are being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this week.
Meanwhile, theologians and ethicists are grappling with the complex issues involved: patient comfort and dignity; autonomy; concern for the suffering of others; emotional and spiritual well being; monetary costs; and the obligations of physicians under the Hippocratic Oath.
All sides agree that there is a difference between refusing medical treatment and committing suicide, with or without a doctor's help. Most states recognize so-called living wills, in which a patient can decline extraordinary means for sustaining life -- respirators and the like. But when the patient actively seeks to end life quicker, the controversy begins.
Groups like the Catholic Medical Association believe assisted suicide is clearly wrong. The group hired the powerful international law firm Morgan, Lewis and Bockius to argue before the Supreme Court against assisted suicide. The group adheres to the teachings of the Catholic Church that God or nature is the arbiter of life and death, and man should play no role in "hastening death" or ending life prematurely.
On the other hand, Dixon Sutherland, who heads the Institute for Christian Ethics at Stetson University in Florida, said the phenomenon of physician assisted suicide is forcing Christians to rethink their understanding of the sanctity of human life.
"Before the age of technology brought the ability to extend life indefinitely, that concept had sacrosanct standing," Sutherland said. "Physician assisted suicide is an outgrowth of people's not wanting to be caught up in a futile extension of life."
Historically, Christians have stood against suicide, except in the case of martyrdom. But Sutherland believes that there are occasions in which suicide co uld be considered an act of martyrdom.
"The theological tenet is that we are individuals responsible to God and to neighbor," he said. "We are not isolated egos. Humans are inter-relational, and that extends to all of society. So a terminal patient soaking up thousands of dollars a day -- money that could be used to treat other patients or feed the hungry -- is irresponsible. That person could reasonably end his life on behalf of his neighbor."
Mark B. Blocher, executive director of The Center for Biblical Values and chief of Health Intervention Services at Western Michigan University, rejects those claims out of hand.
"To argue it's a sacrifice on behalf of others is quite a stretch," Blocher said. "None of Kervorkian's patients did it for the benefit of family or society. They did it for themselves."
Physician assisted suicide undermines a person's relationship with God, who declared life sacred, and undermines the moral integrity of the medical profession, Blocher said.
"The first tenet of the Hippocratic Oath is that a physician should do no harm," he said. "A responsible physician engages in pain management. He does not intentionally administer lethal doses of drugs."
Blocher sees no moral distinction between various methods of "hastening death."
"It doesn't matter whether you suffocate them with a pillow or take a gun and shoot them between the eyes or prescribe a lethal dose of medication-- the intention in all those cases is to cause the death of another, and that is wrong," he said.
Courtney Campbell, who holds a doctorate in religion and teaches at Oregon State University, said an open, flexible, balanced system must be established to handle those seeking assisted suicide. In Oregon, for example, a large segment of the population believed they had to choose between a dismal future wired to life-sustaining machines and a quick death from swallowing a handful of powerful drugs.
Campbell said the goal of a dignified death can be achieved with pain management, hospice care and the support of relatives and friends.
One of the arguments against high doses of morphine, heroin and other pain-killers is the likelihood of addiction. But what difference does it make whether a person with three, six or 12 months to live becomes addicted to pain medication?
"There are some hard cases in which that type of care proves insufficient," Campbell said. "In general, the law should oppose assisted suicides, but there may be cases where it would be morally acceptable. Let the law err on the side of life."
But for the Crons, Presbyterians for most of their adult lives, the religious and ethical arguments carry little weight.
"When it comes to this, it becomes a matter of selfishness," Mrs. Cron said. "My husband is slowly dying. If you get to the point where the pain killers aren't working and life has become agonizing, why prolong the agony for yourself or for your family? The only thing that entered our minds was that if the pain became unbearable or too ugly, we want Robert to have that choice. We all are going to die. We are just talking about shortening life."
Faith Communities Offer Differing Views
The Religious community offers a variety of voices about euthanasia and assisted suicide. The Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopal churches have issued formal statements against it. Evangelical and fundamentalist faith groups tend to be opposed. The Unitarian-Universalist Church supports assisted suicide, if there are proper precautions in place to avoid abuse. Similar positions have been adopted by The United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ.
See These Related Stories:
Copyright © 1998 Villagelife.org Inc. All Rights Reserved