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Let My People Go
May 25, 1997

1 CORINTHIANS 15:50-57

Louis and Evelyn Baer rented a furnished apartment, wrote a letter to their lawyer explaining their action, took pills, and died in each other's arms. She had cancer and he had suffered a stroke. Dr. Baer was a retired Stanford University medical professor. In 1978, Dr. Baer wrote the book, Let the Patient Decide, A Doctor's Advice to Older Persons. The purpose of the book was "to attempt to show you how to minimize your chances of ending your life in a nursing home and how you can prevent the medical prolongation of your act of dying." Some of the chapter titles are intriguing:

When You Neither Live Nor Die

It's Difficult to Die in America

Doctors Don't Always Know Best

Death Preferred

Treatment May Be Worse than Disease

How Much is Enough?

The Patient Gives the Orders

What about the Baers' double suicide? Was it cowardly or courageous? Was

it sacrilegious? Does it establish a dangerous precedent? Do people have the right to decline medical treatment? Do people have the right to die?

There is a great deal of controversy these days about the right to die. Several years ago, a Right to Die initiative on the California ballot was defeated. The main opponents were church groups. My thesis this morning, my bias and my conviction, is that we need to change the current climate of medical care, and the relationship we each have to medical care, so that when God calls people home, we let them go! I believe God has called countless persons "home" who are now on machines, or in nursing homes. Medical care, family instructions, and the law prevented God's will from being accomplished. I believe God looks on countless persons in misery and cries, "Let my people go!"

Death is not the worst alternative. Especially for Christians who believe in eternal life, physical death is not the worst alternative. A woman in one of my former churches traveled frequently to Oregon to help her sister care for their aged father. At the age of 99, he had prostate surgery. In the weeks following the surgery, complications developed and he had another surgery. When the daughter was anxiously telling us about her father, Ellie innocently asked, "What would have happened if you hadn't allowed the surgery?" Like a light bulb turning on, realization hit her and she exclaimed, "Why, he would have died." Then, she realized that surgery at the age of 99 was not necessarily preferable to death. Her father essentially was a "vegetable" following the surgeries. He lived past the age of 104. "Let my people go!"

I also believe people have the right to die. Opponents say we are playing God if we choose to end our lives when faced with a terminal, painful illness. But, when do we cross the line from providing medical care to playing God? B. D. Colen, in his book, Hard Choices, Mixed Blessings in Modern Medical Technology, asks, "Who, after all, is playing God, the physician who turns off a respirator and allows the natural process of dying to conclude, or the physician who turns on the respirator and interferes in that natural process?" (p. 246)

A former parishioner told me her father was resuscitated 15 times after heart attacks. He kept pleading, "Let me go, let me go!" Finally, the family convinced the physicians to use no extraordinary means to prolong his life. When my father's cancer proceeded to the point of no return, and the pain increased, after his children and

grandchildren made the trek to Arizona to say goodbye, he calmly declared, "Now

I will stop eating." My sister urged him to drink water. "You don't want to dehydrate," she said. He died peacefully in a few days.

We have the right to choose to die. We have the right to refuse hospital care. You don't have to call 911. My grandfather had cancer, knew he had cancer in advanced stages, and refused to go to the hospital. Only in the last days, when the pain was unbearable, did he allow himself to be taken to the hospital, where he died in a few days.

A difficult moral question to ask is, to what extent may a person go to choose to die? My uncle was terminally ill with cancer. In considerable pain, he refused to go to the hospital, took a gun, propped it up in a chair and shot himself. Dr. Louis and Evelyn Baer rented a furnished apartment, took pills and committed suicide.

Suicide is too strong a word here. We are talking about persons terminally

ill who are forced by society to a painful prolongation of life. Suicide has been considered a sin in Christianity for centuries. Roman Catholics have called suicide an unforgivable sin. The Bible, however, does not deal directly with suicide. The commandment, "You shall not kill," is a commandment against murder, not humane suicide. When King Saul saw his three sons killed by the Philistines, and was himself badly wounded, he asked his armor-bearer to draw his sword and thrust it through him. The armor-bearer refused so Saul took his own sword, and fell upon it. The armor-bearer then also committed suicide. Does not a person have the right to choose death?


When the options are worse than death, does not a person have the right not

only to choose death, but to be assisted through a merciful form of euthanasia? Derek Humphry and Ann Wickett in their book, The Right to Die, Understanding Euthanasia, point out, "In more primitive societies, death...was treated more realistically than it is today. It was treated as a natural part of life. Aiding death was often done out of respect for all ill person." (p. 2)

My mother died of bone cancer-- multiple myeloma. When the chemotherapy was no longer effective, she was given radiation treatments with no effect. She stayed with us her last three months. We all clearly understood she was terminal. I can still see her sitting in the bed, in her pink bed jacket, saying, "Call Mary (my sister). Tell her I want it over." She called my brother, called her brothers and sisters, told them she belonged to Jesus and said, "Goodbye." Then she told the doctor, "Now I want a shot." We told her the doctor could no longer give her a lethal injection of morphine, because society now prevents the compassionate family doctor from ending life mercifully.

We didn't know then what she would have to suffer the next four weeks: the terrible pain, incoherence from the increased dosages of morphine, an ugly open wound on her hip and a horrible stench even gardenias could not disguise.

Why didn't she have the right to die with dignity? Why didn't she have the right to choose how she would die? Why couldn't her family have gathered around her, celebrated her life, said "thank you" and "goodbye", given her a lethal dose or injection, and held her hand while she died? Society says we don't have that right. Why not? We shoot horses. We put dogs to sleep.

John R. Brooke, a United Church of Christ pastor, has produced a compelling video of Lillian Stevens telling why she planned to commit suicide. She knew she was at the end of her quality life, and rather than endure the indignity of a death she didn't want; rather than becoming a financial burden, spending funds that might better be used to help the living; she decided to commit suicide. She believed she had the right to die. She called the video, "Pro-choice: From Womb to Tomb." Lillian Stevens eventually took her own life. There was no way for her doctor to help, so she took sleeping pills and vodka all by herself. She died alone because she did not want her doctor, family, friends, or pastor to be liable. Why couldn't she be surrounded by those who loved her? Didn't she have the right to die with dignity?

Those who advocate no-choice may believe in the sacredness of life, but they have no belief in the sacredness of freedom, and in the responsible use of freedom of choice in the living and ending of one's life. Right to Life groups seem to also share a belief that death is always the worst possible option. Why do they have such a fear of death? Jesus considered his death the lesser of evils.

Now, what can be done? If you basically agree with me this morning, that

the climate should be changed so when God calls people "home," we let them go,

I have two suggestions for action. First, obtain a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care for yourself. The Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care creates a simple procedure whereby you can indicate your treatment preferences and designate an "attorney in fact"--usually your spouse or child--who is empowered to make medical decisions should you become unable to decide for yourself. The Durable Power of

Attorney for Health Care legally protects the physician, as well as provides

clear instruction for the physician to follow.

Secondly, share this sermon. To help create a climate more favorable to free-choice, send copies of this sermon to our legislators--state and federal, to your physician, and to your family members. Copies will be available next week. And/or ask friends to watch the video of this sermon on Thursday, Channel 11, 1:00 pm. Tape it and share the video with others.

The context within which I place this call for the right to die is our Christian faith. Death is not the end. "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" Through death, God calls us to a new adventure. Jesus has prepared a place for each of us, a place in God's mansion, filled with the glory, wonder, and love of God, where we are reunited with loved ones. Therefore, we face death courageously and hopefully, not with fear and apprehension, but with confidence, joy and expectation. When God calls his people "home," let them go.

© 1997 Douglas I. Norris