Dissecting Death Panels and Other Mythical Creatures
One more "Faith Works" column on health care and your beliefs as a
religious person . . . and then I promise to move on to a different
subject, at least for a while.
This is the topic that seems to be occupying a spot right next to the
coffee pot after most worship services, so I trust offering a little
grist for the mill is welcome. If not, well, there's always the
Sports section, with high school football back in view!
Generally, I'm neither here nor there with the propriety of folks
talking about "death panels." On the one hand, politically, there's
the opinion that it's a lie, there's no such thing in any proposed
legislation, and the phrase is being used by those opposed to any of
the plans in principle. All true, I'd say from my reading.
On the other hand, there is great concern about costs that don't look
like they will be managed, only assumed by the federal government,
hence leading to increased rationing (since we all know there is a
form of rationing going on right now); and a very sincere anxiety on
the part of pro-life/anti-abortion groups that the Democratic
majority in Congress and the Obama administration is committed to
increasing access to abortion and funding of it through public means.
For that side of the debate, "death panels" becomes a short-hand for
a complex but very concrete group of issues that don't lend
themselves to sound bites.
(Note to Democrats – if you want people to stop talking about "death
panels," don't send Peter Singer of Princeton out to allay fears. Bad
What everyone is working their way to understanding is how we can
care for the vulnerable and helpless, and at the same time recognize
limits on what can be done. Some say "what are the limits of what
makes a meaningful life?" Others ask "what are the limits of freedom
when life itself is endangered?" These are both discussions where our
faith perspectives necessarily play a role in where we come down on
drawing the lines that connect or divide policy considerations.
As a Christian, I accept taxation from a duly constituted government
as one of the "delegated" authorities that Romans 13 and elsewhere
discuss, as part of caring for the wider society; as an American
citizen, I have some opinions about what percentage of my household
income should come off the top for civic purposes.
But I'll admit that I saw a disturbing trend begin when a few decades
back, a denomination I'm often involved with received a bequest. That
isn't too unusual, but the news around the gift surely was. An
elderly couple, not gravely ill or in pain, but experiencing limits
and frailties, decided to end their lives so as not to "be a burden
or spend down their assets," and left their estate to the church.
My first thought – naively, perhaps – was that the denomination would
quietly but firmly turn down the gift. What would accepting such an
inheritance say to generations still living, or yet unborn?
They did not. There were words about how the couple might have not
been quite prudent about hastening their end, but much more about how
thoughtful their concern for the poor and needy was in their final
As you can tell, this decision still bothers me. The decision to die,
to kill one's own self in order to make resources available for other
purposes, was in error. Sorry, but it was. And the decision to accept
the outcome of that error was, in my theological opinion, a
compounding of that error.
Or perhaps we should end the parable of the Prodigal Son at Luke
15:12 and call it a happy ending right there.
We do not have "death panels" in any of the health care legislation
under current consideration, but somewhere between outright denial of
dying and human limits, and the very beneficial ministry that is
hospice and palliative care, there are less formal but no less
concrete places where people are deciding who should live, and who
should die. Sometimes, it's simply when a person looks in the mirror
at themselves around 3 am.
There will soon be some form of civic involvement, in providing more
aid than is currently available for medical care. That is necessary,
and just, and surely even Christian. What no legislation can replace
is our need to speak clearly and honestly about what we believe
begins life, and when it rightly ends, and how. Most of us will have
to make some kind of choices about the pace and manner of dying, our
own if not also for others near to us.
It's a harder conversation than politics, and much more necessary.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around
central Ohio; tell him about your experience of end of life decision
making at firstname.lastname@example.org.