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Assisted suicide debate pits religious teachings against personal experiences

POSTED: October 12, 2015 8:09 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Most major religious groups formally oppose doctor-assisted suicide, and yet many members support giving patients the option.

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California became the fifth U.S. state to legalize assisted suicide this week, but many faith leaders remain committed to banning the practice.

The Death With Dignity National Center offers an overview of how various religions assess the morality of assisted suicide. Many faith groups — including the two largest religious communities in the U.S., Catholics and evangelical Christians — officially oppose the practice, although leaders have expressed their sympathy for despondent church members who see suicide as the only way out of difficult situations.

In spite of these official teachings, large numbers of believers support so-called death-with-dignity bills, as Kim Kuo noted in Christianity Today, an evangelical Christian publication.

"About seven out of 10 Americans self-identify as Christian. And, according to a 2015 Gallup poll, 69 percent of Americans say doctors should be legally allowed to end a patient's life if the patient wants it," she wrote. "That means that at least 40 percent of self-identified Christians believe people should be allowed to control the circumstances of their deaths."

Faith leaders like Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, who has publicly decried California's legislation, don't just have to convince lawmakers that assisted suicide is immoral. They also have to address discord in their own congregations, changing the minds of church members who became convinced, through personal experiences, that assisted suicide should be available to people in pain.

This process is complicated, as the recent legislation in California illustrated. Susan Talamantes Eggman, the lead author of the state's bill, is a practicing Catholic, The Los Angeles Times reported. She consulted with a church leader when the legislation was being debated, but chose to follow her conscience rather than heed his advice to drop her push for the right to die.

"We may be ready to die and even want to die, but the final decision is in the hands of God," wrote Bishop Stephen Blaire in an critical open letter to the assemblywoman in the Lodi News-Sentinel.

According to Gallup, support is growing for assisted suicide among U.S. adults. "Nearly seven in 10 Americans (68 percent) say doctors should be legally allowed to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide, up 10 percentage points from (2014)," the organization reported in May.

Additionally, 56 percent of U.S. adults describe assisted suicide as "morally acceptable," compared to 37 percent who call the practice immoral, Gallup reported.
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