WILLIAMSTOWN -- The First Congregational Church will be running two programs on "Death with Dignity" legislation for its "Second Hour @ the Meeting House" series, with a public panel discussion taking place this Sunday and on Sunday, Sept. 23, at 11:15 a.m., after services.
Williams College bio-ethicist Julia Pedroni and Los Angeles clinical ethicist Rachel Tarses will have a discussion on both dates, moderated by former philosophy professor Charles Fox. He has previously put together programs at the First Congrega tional Church to discuss contemporary issues in religion, and their various as pects in intellectual and public life.
"This particular program I got interested in because I, for many years, have been persuaded that we need to have a much more humane approach to the dying process -- especially in cases of terminal illness involving great pain and debilitation," Fox said recently.
Oregon was the first to pass their Death with Dignity act in 1994. Washington state followed, and more recently, a Montana judge ruled that citizens in state have a right to determine for themselves when they will die when their death is inevitable by virtue of a terminal illness.
For his part, Fox views this as part of a larger trend, where forward-thinking socio-cultural ideas first take root on one coast and then migrate to the other, only gaining more widespread support after decades pass.
"Certainly this will be an
Knowing that Massachusetts has placed the Death with Dignity Act on the state's Nov ember election ballot as Ques tion No. 2 by means of citizen's petition, Fox spoke to the Con gregational Church on Aug. 19, devoting his talk to the topic, and putting together the Death with Dignity panel discussions that will take place over the next two Sundays.
The two participants in the programs are both trained in the ethical questions surrounding death. Rachel Tarses, who received her master's degree in bio-ethics from Loyola-Merri mount University, sits on the ethics committee of two large hospitals in Los Angeles, one of which is Roman Catholic. Pedroni, who has a Ph.D. in bio-ethics from Georgetown, was trained by Jesuit philosophers and theologians, and currently teaches philosophy at Williams College.
Unsurprisingly, ethical questions regarding death with dignity legislation can raise a number of issues. Fox was hap py to lay out what he saw as some of the most important questions.
"One of the issues is obviously: Does an individual have a right to end their life prematurely, even when they are in a situation of terminal suffering and sickness, knowing that the medical prognosis is that you only have 6 months to live?"
The Death with Dignity (or in Massachusetts, "Dignity 2012") initiative law would allow individuals in such situations, when it has been determined medically that they have less than six months to live, the opportunity to end their lives when they choose rather than endure suffering. If they have expressed that opinion, confirmed by a physician, they would receive a prescription for a capsule that would provide a quick and painless death.
One of the biggest religious questions is whether people have the right to that kind of complete autonomy over their own life. Another complicating factor is that within the Christian tradition, taking one's own life for any reason was regarded as a mortal sin, one that could only result in what Fox termed "an unkind fate beyond this present life."
"That's certainly another question," said Fox, "Does that kind of theology make sense as good Christian theology? I personally don't think it does, and that we do have a right to be self-determining in the timing of our death in circumstances such as terminal illness."
Fox predicts that people will begin weighing in with an op posing view as outside money begins pouring into Massachu setts in October, in anticipation of the ballot on Nov. 6.
"We have a two-fold goal," explained Fox. "We want to instruct people about the issues at stake, and we want to advocate for the moral and spiritual reasonableness of this legal proposal."
Both events will be free and open to the public.