When Brittany Maynard was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor earlier this year, she decided to end her life on her terms. The 29-year-old moved to Oregon -- where physician-assisted suicide is legal -- and took a lethal mixture of water, sedatives and respiratory-system depressants on Saturday.
In her last days, Maynard’s decision to end her life brought right-to-die laws to the fore. Advocates, critics and politicians participated in the national conversation that ensued -- and so did a handful of religious leaders.
The Roman Catholic Church has been the most vocal about Maynard’s case. Days before her death Archbishop Alexander Sample of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland said assisted suicide “sows confusion about the purpose of life and death.” On Tuesday, after Maynard’s death, one of the Vatican’s bioethics officials reacting to the news called assisted suicide "an absurdity."
The Roman Catholic Church operates under the principle that all life must be valued, and ending someone’s life -- even one's own, even if it is to eliminate suffering -- violates divine law.
For the most part, the world’s major religions adopt similar stances. All three major denominations in Judaism -- Orthodox, Conservative and Reform -- see the preservation of life as a cardinal value and assisted suicide as akin to killing. However, medical procedures that prolong a person’s life and suffering need not be taken. For instance, this can be following an individual’s “do not resuscitate” order; removing a feeding tube or respirator can be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Islam adheres to a similar law. Dr. Hatem Bazian, an imam and co-founder of Zaytuna College, said, “One of the key purposes of Islamic law is to preserve and protect life.” He referred to one of the faith’s principles -- “save a life, save all humanity” -- as one that informs all Islamic law.
“You cannot take affirmative steps to end someone’s life,” Bazian said. This is defined as physician-assisted measures, but removing life support mechanisms such as respiratory and feeding tubes that keep someone in a vegetative state is allowed.
The National Association of Evangelicals, NAE, which includes more than 30 Christian evangelical denominations, recently approved a new resolution that allows terminally ill patients to “request the withholding or withdrawal of life-support systems, allowing natural death to occur.” Using medical intervention to end someone’s life, however, is prohibited.
“Evangelicals want to honor life from womb to tomb. As technology advances, moral questions complicate the decisions that family members face regarding treatment of their loved ones. This resolution gives guidance to our members who are in some very difficult situations,” NAE President Leith Anderson said in a statement.
Wiccans and pagans remain divided on the issue, according to Wiccan priestess Selena Fox. “The debate on euthanasia has been going on since ancient pagan times, when some forms of it were practiced by some Greeks and Romans,” Fox, who runs a Wiccan church in Wisconsin, said.
For modern Wiccans and pagans who wish to follow the Wiccan Rede, or moral principle, "An (if) it harm none, do what ye will," the decision to end someone’s life is more nuanced. “The question remains, is euthanasia harmful or is it curtailing harm by ending prolonged end-of-life suffering?” Fox said.
Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism oppose physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Buddhists are taught that it is morally wrong to destroy one’s life. The Sikh gurus rejected suicide as interfering with God’s plan. In Hindu teaching, ending someone’s life prematurely can negatively afftect karma.
Five religious groups permit physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the Spiritualist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church and the United Church of Christ.
Rev. Chuck Currie, a minister in the United Church of Christ in Oregon, said he voted for right-to-die legislation twice. “Oregon's death with dignity is not about the freedom to choose death; it is about recognizing the reality that death comes and that we can take medically appropriate steps to make that death as painless and dignified as possible,” he wrote in a blog post about Brittany Maynard’s choice.
Bishop James Wilkowski from the Evangelical Catholic Diocese of the Northwest, an independent Catholic Church theologically aligned with Lutheranism, reacted similarly. He said he was “personally sure” that Maynard “was received into God's loving hands and was welcomed into His kingdom.”