Holy Dying, Assisted Dying?: An Anglican Perspective on Physician-Assisted Suicide

By Fletcher, David B. | Ethics & Medicine, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Holy Dying, Assisted Dying?: An Anglican Perspective on Physician-Assisted Suicide


Fletcher, David B., Ethics & Medicine


Not long ago I was asked by my parish priest to accompany him on a visit to a parishioner who was suffering from advanced cancer and was being maintained on a ventilator. As we entered her hospital room we saw her sitting up in bed, breathing through a tracheotomy tube in her throat. Since the tube rendered her unable to speak, she would write her questions on a legal pad and gave them to us. This woman, a married mother of two, had a number of concerns, including the upcoming first communion of her younger child which would take place in a private family service to be held in a visiting room down the hall from her room. Perhaps foremost among her concerns was whether she would be doing wrong as a Christian to decide at some point to refuse life-prolonging treatments that were available to her and simply let go. As a philosopher who works in biomedical ethics, I was there to help her understand her options. Yet what she sought from me was not any consensus of bioethical scholarship or the latest developments in the writings of philosophers and others in the field, all things I would be prepared to discuss at a moment's notice, but what should she do as a faithful Christian. What did God want her to do? Furthermore, she lived her faith in the context of the Episcopal Church, and I perceived her questions to be asking how to determine the ethical and faithful course of action open to her as a particular kind of Christian, an Episcopalian.

What do Episcopalians and other Anglicans have to say on the topic of endof-life issues including physician-assisted suicide (which I hasten to add was not being considered by my dying fellow parishioner)? What is the Anglican perspective on physician-assisted suicide? Where does one turn as an Anglican or Episcopalian in attempting to develop a perspective on the ethical acceptability of physician-assisted suicide?

Those with any familiarity with the Episcopal Church or the worldwide Anglican Communion will find themselves either baffled or amused by that question. Anglicans are famously or notoriously diverse on many issues not only of morality, but of theology as well. To some extent this is due to the inroads of liberal theological perspectives on a historically orthodox faith, but also it owes to Anglicanism's historic divergences between the three schools of evangelical, broad church or liberal, and Anglo Catholic. In addition, Anglicans tend strongly to value the liberty of individual conscience. We might expect that contemporary Anglicanism does not have a settled doctrine on the ethics of physician-assisted suicide and that Anglicans can be found on all sides of that vexing issue.

Recently the Committee on Medical Ethics of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington issued a report addressing assisted suicide and euthanasia. Reflecting on the report, committee chair Cynthia B. Cohen observed in their group a wide range of perspectives on physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia and reported that "they offer no consensus on the issue at this time."1 Again, this is a hardly surprising fruit of the labors of an Episcopalian working group on such topics today.

In light of such facts, isn't it hopeless to attempt to develop the Anglican position on physician-assisted suicide? The Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church asks those receiving the sacrament to "respect the dignity of every human being" (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305), but does one respect dignity more by denying euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide and by offering support in the dying process, or by giving those who choose such options the opportunity to die with what they consider "dignity"? In this paper I do not propose to offer a summary of what the Episcopal Church or other Anglican bodies teach on these topics. Rather, I will survey some of the diversity of views on the issue and then attempt to establish my own perspective as an Episcopalian philosopher with some expertise in bioethics, a perspective that will be faithful to important strands of the Anglican heritage and responsive to the current philosophical debate. …

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