By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
Editor’s Note: See opinion columns in the next several days on the topic of physician assisted suicide or death with dignity.
NASHVILLE — The issue of physician assisted suicide (PAS) or death with dignity has surfaced in Tennessee.
Earlier this year a bill which would have allowed doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs when requested by terminally ill patients failed to be acted upon by the Tennessee General Assembly.
In May, however, well-known Tennessee lawyer and politician John Jay Hooker filed a lawsuit challenging state law that makes it a felony to assist in a suicide, according to a report in The Tennessean on July 10. The Associate Press reported that the 84-year-old former candidate for governor of Tennessee has terminal cancer.
On that same day, Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy heard arguments on the issue from both sides.
Steven Hart, special counsel in the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, argued assisted suicide is not a constitutionally protected right, according to The Tennessean.
Hart noted that 45 states prohibit assisted suicide, which also is termed by some as death with dignity, the paper reported.
Randy C. Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, understands well the arguments of those who support physician assisted suicide but makes it clear that he opposes any attempt to make it legal.
“I’ve stood beside the bed of many terminally ill friends in my three-plus decades as a pastor. It tears my heart out to see them suffer,” he said.
“I don’t begin to claim an understanding of why God does what He does in the lives of individuals but I do know this: God has a purpose in all that He does and He is with these friends through the finish line of this world and ushers them into eternity.”
For those who are suffering, Davis encouraged them “to lean into Jesus and on His promises to never leave you or forsake you even when it feels you are alone. If you are a relative or friend of someone suffering, the Bible clearly calls us to bear up one another’s burdens.”
Davis stressed that as “executive director of the Executive Board ministries of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, I categorically state that we in no way support any assisted suicide measures.
“Between abortion and a push to see assisted suicide legalized across our country, I’m extremely alarmed at the trend of devaluing of life in our culture. The inception and termination of life is not ours to determine. God has determined both an individual’s birth and death — He specifically says so in His Word — and it is not our place under any circumstance to usurp His authority.
“We must bend our lives to conform to the Bible, not conform the Bible to suit our convenience,” he said.
Southern Baptist ethicist Ben Mitchell, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Union University in Jackson, addressed PAS in an April opinion article in The Jackson Sun.
He wrote that “even though in assisted suicide it is the patient who administers the lethal drug, the practice distorts the healing relationship between doctors and their patients.
“Doctors have an ethical duty to do what they can to alleviate suffering, but they should not knowingly involve themselves in the active death of a patient, even if the patient requests it. Doctors must not be complicit in killing their patients,” Mitchell noted in the column.
Mitchell told the Baptist and Reflector that “one of the ironies” of Hooker’s lawsuit is that he “is asking for a future right that he cannot possibly be certain he will exercise when the time comes.
“He may, in fact, choose palliative care and pain management. I hope he does, because far more physicians have excellent skills in that area of patient care than have practice killing people.”
Mitchell also observed that one “does not need a constitutional right to kill oneself. What Mr. Hooker is arguing is that he has a constitutional right to have others help him kill himself. There is nothing of the kind in either the Tennessee or U. S. Constitution. His right to end his own life does not entail an obligation on others to assist him.”
The Union provost also stressed that “physicians must not be accomplices in killing their patients. That would hardly be death with dignity.”
On July 23 the Family Action Council of Tennessee reported that the Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a “friend of the court” brief on the Family Action Council’s behalf and for other organizations in Tennessee that support life. The brief defends the constitutionality of Tennessee’s law which prohibits PAS.
David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council, observed in a blog July 23 that the rationale used by the United States Supreme Court in its recent same-sex marriage ruling could eventually lead to the overturning of state laws prohibiting physician assisted suicide.
He wrote that “the court’s rationale made our ability to govern ourselves and exist as a nation of sovereign states subject to the whims of this unelected ‘committee of nine lawyers’ we call the Supreme Court. Self government, states’ rights, and the Tenth Amendment may have died, too. They were, for sure, put on life support.
“But that’s not all that may have died. If the Court overrules our laws against physician assisted suicide, it may just be your right to live that gets overruled if someday you get too old, too costly, or too infirm.”