Last week on "Interfaith Voices," we tackled one of the most difficult and explosive topics in interfaith discussions of moral theology these days: whether the terminally ill have the right to seek medication from doctors to end their own lives.
The case of Brittany Maynard gave this movement national publicity after she moved to Oregon (one of three states where this is legal) and -- to avoid what she believed would be a horrible death from raging brain cancer -- took lethal medications that her doctor had given her. Kara Tippetts, on the other hand, was a young woman in a similar situation (raging cancer, terminally ill) who wrote to Maynard, asking her to reconsider her decision. Tippetts died naturally earlier this year.
Catholic Fr. Thomas Petri, an instructor in moral theology and academic dean of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and Episcopal Bishop Eugene Robinson, retired bishop of the episcopal diocese of New Hampshire and now at the Center for American Progress, debated the issue. They left no stone unturned in their pointed but civilized exchange.
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They raised questions about the teachings of Scripture and tradition in Christianity, whether suffering itself is "evil," and whether one tradition (in this case, Catholicism) has the right to dictate its perspectives to a whole state or nation via civil law.
When I asked each to give the formal teachings of their faith tradition, Petri made it clear that Catholicism forbids this, and Robinson explained what I thought was the case but had never heard articulated before with the Episcopal church: namely, that there is no formal moral teaching in that tradition that is binding on everyone. Petri also made clear, however, that Catholicism does not require that anyone in a terminally ill condition must prolong life unnecessarily or with extraordinary means.