At issue in Massachusetts: End of life

As I type this, I’m cruising at 39,000 feet on an American Airlines flight to Boston.

I’m a nervous flier, so I’m hitting the save button frequently in case something unfortunate happens and a fellow GetReligionista has to finish this post. (Just joking. Mostly.)

Coincidentally given my destination, I’m going to review a Boston Globe story on a doctor-assisted suicide measure facing Massachusetts voters:

The state’s religious communities are divided over what is perhaps the most profound question on this year’s ballot: Should people nearing the end of terminal illnesses be allowed to obtain a prescription drug to end their lives?

The largest religious force in Massachusetts, the Roman Catholic Church, has come out squarely against the referendum, as have other prominent faith voices. A handful of smaller denominations support the measure known as Question 2.

But some umbrella faith organ­izations remain loath to stake out a position, reflecting, they say, the range of opinion among their membership on an issue that proponents refer to as “death with dignity” and opponents call “doctor-assisted suicide.”

In general, this story impressed me as a meaty, evenhanded exploration of a highly relevant religion angle. This section, for example, strikes at the heart of the theological debate:

For religious people, the ­issue raises theological questions surrounding the holiness of life, the nature of human dignity, and the process of dying.

“Ultimately, the moment of death is not for us to decide,” said Rabbi Andrew Vogel of Temple Sinai in Brookline, who signed the rabbis’ letter. “That’s the gift of the spiritual tradition to say it’s ultimately God’s choice.”

But many clergy also draw on their experiences over years spent at the bedsides of dying people and their families.

In seminary, the Rev. Tim Kutzmark, a Unitarian-Universalist minister in Reading, wrote an impassioned paper against allowing the terminally ill to hasten death by prescription. He argued that God never gives people more suffering than they can handle. Then he got ordained and watched death up close.

“I’ve really changed,” he said. “I believe that death is a highly personal experience, and it can be excruciating and drawn out for the individual who is ill and for their families. Sometimes what is best and right for the individual is to claim that moment of death for themselves, knowing they are freeing themselves from . . . needless pain and suffering.”

Given that I don’t know how long this 757′s engines are going to hold out, however, I’ll raise a few quick questions about the 1,100-word piece that I think could have improved it.

First, the lede stresses the “divided” nature of the state’s religious communities on the ballot question. However, the evidence supporting the claim that a handful of smaller denominations support the measure is scant. Later in the story, “a handful” becomes “a few”:

Opposition is not uniform. A few denominations, like the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, with about 22,000 members in Massachusetts, officially support the concept. The Unitarians and other mainline Protestant denominations typically do not take positions on specific state proposals.

So the only group mentioned specifically does not take an “official” position on the state ballot measure? Meanwhile, the insinuation is made that mainline Protestant denominations unofficially support the measure, but those denominations are not named or quoted.

More vagueness is found here:

Campaign finance reports released Monday show that Catholic and conservative Christian organizations from outside the state have contributed most of the $900,000 raised by the main committee against the question, the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide.

Who are the Catholic organizations that have contributed? The conservative Christian organizations? Such details seem relevant to me.

This paragraph made me chuckle:

Rarely does the political system confront matters of life and death so directly. With Election Day less than two months away, many religious leaders are inten­sifying their focus on the question.

Can anybody besides me think of any “life and death” issues that the political system regularly confronts?

But back on the positive side, I liked the ending as the reporter weaves political reality into the religious debate:

Joseph T. Baerlein, president of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, is handling strategy for the Committee Against Physician Assisted Suicide. Baerlein, who claims an undefeated record in running ballot campaigns, helped liquor wholesalers win a come-from-behind ballot question victory in 2006, when grocers wanted to be able to sell beer and wine. He did it by enlisting the support of law enforcement officials, who saw the issue as one of public safety.

He said the committee will focus on harnessing the opposition to Question 2 from the state’s medical community, whose professional associations are largely aligned against the measure. Opponents, he said, will emphasize what they see as flaws in the way the bill is written. For example, patients are not required to consult with a mental health practitioner to make sure they are not suffering from depression.

“With no disrespect to any religion, in the world we live in, we say, ‘How do you get to 51 percent?’ ” he said. “The fact is, this state is more secular than religious.”

Uh-oh! The pilot just warned us to brace for impact!

(I really am kidding this time.)

Image via Shutterstock

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • sari

    Interesting that the Jewish Community Relations Council, an umbrella organization for Jewish charities and groups, was solicited, since halakhic rulings are outside its purview, and that only Reform Rabbis were mentioned. Boston has a large Jewish population which runs the gamut of observance, including a number of Orthodox groups, including the Bostoner Hasidim. Why not seek out the rabbis who specialize in end of life issues rather than those least grounded in Jewish Law?


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