Cleric calls for limited euthanasia

Q&A

April 06, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Helping terminally ill patients take their own lives -- a practice brought to national attention by Michigan physician Jack Kevorkian in recent months -- remains controversial.

The issues are emotional and touch on morality, law, philosophy and theology. Michigan recently legislated against Dr. Kevorkian's suicide assistance.

The Rev. Frederick J. Hanna is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland with views on the subject that some might call unusual for a cleric -- he says mercy killing and suicide can be justified. But the retired rector has reservations about Dr. Kevorkian's methods.

Father Hanna, 68, retired last year after 22 years as rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Reisterstown. He had been vicar of the Episcopal Chapel of the Redemption in Locust Point from 1956 to 1959 and associate rector of downtown Baltimore's Emmanuel Episcopal Church from 1959 to 1970.

QUESTION: Many Christian ethicists, primarily Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants, see abortion and euthanasia -- mercy killing -- as violating the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." Where do you stand?

ANSWER: There is no Christian position as such on euthanasia, no more than there is on abortion and in many other controversial areas. There are Christians on both sides of many controversies.

And there are many mainline Protestants -- in the United %J Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ, for example -- who have taken fairly strong stands for mercy killing. They approve of euthanasia when it is properly controlled.

So it's not a case of all Christian churches being against it. I personally think that euthanasia may be necessary sometimes for some people, that we ought to make it possible for some people to terminate life when it is no longer bearable for them.

But I also think those people need to make the decision for themselves to the extent possible.

Q.: Then suicide can be justified?

A.: Yes, whether we call it euthanasia -- a good death -- or suicide. You know, for many years, many churches would not bury suicides. That has changed. Now, the Roman Catholic Church buries suicides [in consecrated ground], usually with the understanding that the person who takes his or her own life is not mentally well, that there is a sickness there.

But we should distinguish between a suicide where someone is dealing with emotional problems, or financial problems, or some scandal, whatever it may be, and the euthanasia that is involved when someone is terminally ill and is facing only suffering and extended suffering.

There is a vast difference.

I cannot say either that everyone ought to be allowed to take his or her own life, no matter what the situation, or that no one should. It has to be a situation-by-situation decision, determining what is the most loving, responsible thing that can be done.

Q.: What is your view of assisted suicides?

A.: Let's be honest, an assisted suicide for doctors, for the medical profession, goes against everything they stand for.

For some 2,400 years, under the Hippocratic Oath, they would not do anything that would hasten death. They would always do what they could to prolong life. Assisting a suicide would go against their code of ethics, and I can see that this would be upsetting.

On the other hand, we have made so many medical advances, the technology has improved to such a point, that we are now extending life even when that life is really only existence. And I worry about that.

Doctors may have to face the fact that, yes, they should be allowed to help a person terminate life by giving a lethal injection or pills or whatever, but not on his or her own. I think we need to look for checks and balances.

I'm concerned about Kevorkian acting on someone's request, someone he doesn't even know. In other words, there's a big difference between Dr. Kevorkian and, let's say, some Dr. Jones who has a longtime relationship with his patient and pretty much knows all of the situation.

But it seems to me that we need a second opinion always. Then, a doctor should be allowed to help a person terminate life if that is the person's decision.

Q.: Can death come as a natural result of administering painkillers without any conscious decision to end life?

A.: Absolutely. And let's be honest, it may well be that doctors are across a barrel once in a while, that they are torn in two different directions.

On the one hand, they want to preserve life, they want to save life. On the other hand, they want to relieve pain. And sometimes, in the relieving of pain, patients are slowed down, finally to the point where they may not function, where the respiratory system no longer works, the pulse slows down.

Q.: Do you think there should be legal restrictions to guide thadministering of painkillers by physicians?

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