Freethought Today · Vol. 23 No. 1 January/February 2006

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

One's Right to Die with Dignity

By George B. Whatley, M.D.

Are we already in effect a theocracy?
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Willa Mae and Dr. George B. Whatley

The primary opponent to physician aid in dying is the Roman Catholic Church. It has fought against every advancement in the science of medicine ever since the fourth century. From that time, and even past the Middle Ages, it practiced its own brand of medicine.

During those years, the Church prescribed remedies and also referred people to pray to certain saints depending on the complaint. The Church advised for a laxative water in which a hair of any saint had been dipped. For a fever, the patient was told to drink water in which St. Remy's ring had been dipped. For a toothache, one was told to pray to St. Appolonia; for epilepsy, one prayed to St. Valentine. Martin Luther, Mohammed, and even Paul, before he became a saint, could have prayed to St. Valentine to cure their epilepsy. To cure leprosy, one was told to drink water in which the bones of any saint had been dipped.

The case which proved to be the most fateful for the world was that of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The Church advised Constantine, who supposedly had leprosy, to pray to St. Sylvester.

Miraculously "cured," Constantine immediately became a Christian and moved the seat of the Church to Byzantium, Turkey, and proclaimed the Roman Empire Christian. He changed the name of the city to Constantinople. It is now Istanbul; the country is Islamic but the government is secular.

The preceding facts were researched by Andrew Dickson White and included in his 1896 two-volume book titled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. White served in the New York State Senate, was U.S. ambassador to several countries, wrote the charter for Cornell University and served as its first president. He also served as the first chair of the international peace conference at the Hague. To his credit he is included in Warren Allen Smith's 1,237-page book, Who's Who in Hell (coincidentally he is listed on page 1173 alphabetically with this author).

This serves as a preamble to the worldwide debate concerning one's right to die with dignity with the help of a physician. The freethinkers of the world, meaning those whose thinking is not bound by any religion, are leading the rational, empathetic side of the movement. The Roman Catholic Church is leading the unsympathetic religious side of the debate. Our federal government is influenced by the Catholic Church in this debate.

Who owns you, your body, your "soul," your essence of being, your uniqueness of one in this universe? The government says you belong to the state; the Church says you belong to God. Freethinkers say your body belongs to you and therefore you have the right to determine whether you should live or die under certain circumstances.

Prior to birth, you existed as a parasite on the sustenance of your mother. Once the umbilical cord was severed, you became an individual living in relationship to your mother and the rest of the world. You are endowed with a physiological body and brain and an undefined mind/"soul." As this, your organism, develops and matures, it is confronted with all of the aspects of living and will terminate in dying.

In your environment and experiences, you encounter deliberative dictates of a secular government, dictates and commands of some religious hierarchy, and formulations of principles and rights within your own intelligence. You deal with these entities throughout a normal life, but near the end of your life you find yourself in an extreme situation. You have a disease or condition which the medical profession has determined it cannot cure and that you will probably die from within six months "except for a miracle." (We freethinkers recognize only one miracle, a thing which cannot be explained; that is the miracle of existence. All other so-called miracles are fabrications by the popes to create saints.)

You are losing control of your bodily functions; your palliative treatment, including pain medication, is giving you no relief; you are suffering and you would like a doctor to prescribe a drug for you that would painlessly relieve your agony by hastening your death. We freethinkers feel that wherever you live, the laws should make this possible for you. On the other hand, the Catholic hierarchy has a tenet or dogma that says that suffering is good for the soul. In fact, there was a time when, if you agreed with the scientists that the earth revolves around the sun, the Church would torture you on the rack for your soul's sake, then burn you at the stake. The Church was responsible for millions of these ecclesiastical-hastened deaths. You could also get such a hastened death if you were judged to be a witch.

Our federal government and the conservative American Medical Association agree with the Church. The doctors hide behind the 2,500-year-old Hippocratic oath, which says "first do no harm"--as if watching a fellow human being suffer the agonies of hell during his last few weeks of life is not the worst kind of harm. The British Medical Association was formerly against physician aid in dying , but now is in favor of it and is joining the argument for it in Parliament. The reason for this reversal is said to be that religion in England is not as politically powerful as it is in the United States.

Dr. Kevorkian reminded the court during his trial that the U.S. is lagging behind other countries with respect to right to die with dignity laws. In the Netherlands and Switzerland, euthanasia is legal, and foreign nationals may take advantage of it. Dr. Kevorkian pointed out that Colombia, South America, a Catholic country, permits a right to die with physician help. Oregon is the only state in the U.S. with a law permitting right to die with a physician's help.

The people of Oregon in 1994 voted for a right to die law and it was passed in the legislature. The day before it was to become effective, a religious group from Indiana flew to the capital and persuaded a federal judge to block the law. In 1997, Oregonians voted for it again with a greater margin than in 1994. As attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft made several attempts to nullify the law but was rebuffed by the courts on each attempt. When Ashcroft retired, Gonzales took up the fight (for Bush, of course) and now, after arguments, it is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The influence of the Catholic Church and Protestant fundamentalists on the White House is apparent when we consider Bush's attitude on stem cell research, "God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, the teaching of evolution, the Ten Commandments, and physician's aid in dying--all antiscience. The heavy sectarian hand of votes is being played.

This is especially true with respect to abortion, which has been a legal part of medicine since 1973 and is the law of the land. Bush took an oath to defend the laws and the Constitution of the United States, but his arrogant embrace of religion abrogates and declares void the First Amendment of the Constitution.

With the religious influence in Washington, D.C., and many of the states, one might wonder if we are already in effect a theocracy.

The world has been aware of the Dr. Kevorkian saga, in which he was convicted of second-degree murder for euthanizing a man in the late stage of Lou Gehrig's disease. The man, a Catholic, begged Dr. Kevorkian to terminate his misery; his wife and a brother, both Catholic, agreed it was the right thing and the right time to do it. Dr. Kevorkian made a video of the entire procedure, and some months later persuaded CBS to broadcast it on the "60 Minutes" program for millions of viewers to witness. Dr. Kevorkian was subsequently arrested, tried and convicted of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in a Michigan prison.

In his eighth year of confinement, he was recently allowed a telephone interview by Rita Cosby on her MSNBC-TV program at the same time an appeal was being made to the governor of Michigan for clemency on his behalf. His first parole hearing is not due for three more years. It was announced on that show that a Hollywood movie of his life is in the works.

I have supported him and his cause through Ruth Holmes, a friend and legal advisor in whose home he lived several weeks prior to being incarcerated. Upon publication, I received his remarkable book, glimmerIQs. I am now supporting a documentary of Dr. Kevorkian and his travails, which is being produced by Karen Cantor, CEO of Singing Wolf Documentaries, Inc., in Falls Church, Va.

I support three organizations which are vitally concerned with the implementation of the Oregon right-to-die law: the Hemlock Society, merging with Choices in Dying in Denver, Colo., and Compassion in Dying, in Portland, Ore. (all of these will become one--Compassion and Choices in Dying, Inc.). It was my pleasure to have as guests on a recent weekend the executive director of Compassion in Dying from Portland, George Eighmey, and Marsha Temple, the CEO of the two combined units in Denver.

We attended the monthly meeting of the Alabama Freethought Association at Lake Hypatia in Talladega, Ala., where the two of them energized a very receptive audience with a summation of the right-to-die movement from their perspective.

The fundamental difference in the philosophies of those for and those against the right to die with help by physicians largely rests on whether one believes in the supernatural or not.

George B. Whatley, M.D., is a Life Member and supporter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its Alabama chapter, the Alabama Freethought Association.

The auditorium at the Lake Hypatia Freethought Hall is named after Dr. Whatley's late wife, Willa Mae Whatley.

Andrew White's classic, still in print, is available for $20, including postage, from FFRF, PO Box 750, Madison WI 53701.


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