Medically assisted suicide and faith: Why tension persists as laws change

Courtesy of the National Cancer Institute via Creative Commons

New Jersey could soon become the seventh U.S. state to legalize medically assisted suicide through legislation. Nearly three-quarters of Americans support this end-of-life option despite concerns raised by some doctors, lawmakers and religious leaders.

Physician-assisted suicide is also becoming more acceptable around the world. Already legal in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Colombia and elsewhere, it will be available in the Australian state of Victoria beginning in mid-2019.

As the practice becomes more common, faith communities continue to struggle with how best to engage the surrounding debate. There’s tension between the desire to relieve suffering and the belief that all lives are worth living. Many doctors and nurses refuse to take part in physician-assisted suicide for religious reasons even as some religiously affiliated hospitals allow patients to die on their own terms. 

This edition of ReligionLink explores the latest legal and cultural developments related to medically assisted suicide, highlighting resources that will help you cover what’s happening in your region.

Background reading

U.S. coverage

International coverage

Related research

National sources

  • Richard F. Address

    Rabbi Richard F. Address is founder and director of Jewish Sacred Aging, an organization aimed at helping the Jewish community navigate end-of-life issues. He previously served as director of the department of Jewish family concerns for the Union for Reform Judaism.

  • Margaret Pabst Battin

    Margaret Pabst Battin is a philosophy professor at the University of Utah and a leading figure in the public debate on end-of-life issues. She has written extensively on religious and ethical concerns in physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia and has researched active euthanasia and assisted suicide in the Netherlands. Her books include Ending Life: Ethics and the Way We Die and Physician Assisted Suicide: Expanding the Debate.

  • Lucy Bregman

    Lucy Bregman is a religion professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. She researches religion and death and has taught a course on death and dying since 1979.

  • Jennifer L. Briemann

    Jennifer L. Briemann is the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, where she helps lead the group’s advocacy efforts against physician-assisted suicide.

    Contact: 410-269-1155, 301-261-1979.
  • Charlie Camosy

    Charlie Camosy is an associate professor of theology at Fordham University. He writes regularly on abortion rights, medically assisted suicide and other political issues, including paid family leave. 

  • Arthur Caplan

    Arthur Caplan is a professor of bioethics and director of the division of medical ethics at New York University’s school of medicine. He co-edited Assisted Suicide: Finding Common Ground.

  • Christopher Key Chapple

    Christopher Key Chapple is a professor of Indic and comparative theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He contributed chapters on Hinduism and Jainism to the 2014 book Transhumanism and the Body: The World Religions Speak and has written on what Jainism has to offer to end-of-life health care debates.

  • Farr Curlin

    Farr Curlin is a professor of medical humanities at Duke Divinity School. He’s also a hospice and palliative care physician. Curlin studies the role religion plays in a doctor’s clinical decisions and the relationship between religion and medicine more broadly.

  • Mario Dickerson

    Mario Dickerson is the executive director of the Catholic Medical Association. He previously served as a chaplain’s assistant at the National Naval Medical Center.

  • Nancy Dubler

    Nancy Neveloff Dubler is a bioethics expert who has written and spoken widely on health care for vulnerable populations, end-of-life care, adolescent health and AIDS. She is a professor emerita of family and social medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York, and an affiliate of the school’s bioethics education program.

  • Catherine Glenn Foster

    Catherine Glenn Foster is president and CEO of Americans United for Life, which uses legal action and legislative advocacy to oppose abortion rights and medically assisted suicide. She is an attorney and previously worked for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a high-profile law firm that specializes in religious freedom cases.

  • Rosemary Lloyd

    The Rev. Rosemary Lloyd is the adviser to faith communities for The Conversation Project, an organization that promotes and facilitates conversations on end-of-life care. She is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and longtime hospice volunteer.

  • Aaron Mackler

    Aaron Mackler is an associate professor of theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and a Conservative rabbi. He has written extensively on health-care ethics, theological ethics and Jewish theology and helped draft reports on physician-assisted suicide and medical decision-making as ethicist for the New York State Task Force on Life and Law.

  • Aida Mansoor

    Aida Mansoor is the interim coordinator of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. She also serves as a board member for the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding, the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford and the Hartford Hospital and St. Francis Hospital Pastoral Service Committee.

  • Ann Neumann

    Ann Neumann is the author of  The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America, which is on aid-in-dying issues and religion.

  • David Orentlicher

    David Orentlicher, a physician and lawyer, co-directs the health law program and teaches law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is an expert in bioethics, health law, health-care planning and abortion and previously served as director of the American Medical Association’s Division of Ethics Standards.

  • Timothy Quill

    Timothy Quill, a professor of medicine, psychiatry and palliative care at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, was the lead physician plaintiff in the 1977 New York state legal case challenging the prohibition of physician-assisted suicide. He is co-editor of Physician-Assisted Dying: The Case for Palliative Care and Patient Choice and author of Caring for Patients at the End of Life: Facing an Uncertain Future Together

    Contact: (585) 273-1154.
  • Imran Qureshi

    Dr. Imran Qureshi is board president for the Islamic Medical Association of North America. He is a radiologist.

  • Peg Sandeen

    Peg Sandeen is executive director of Death with Dignity, an organization that works to increase access to medically assisted suicide. She was previously executive director of the AIDS Project of Central Iowa.

    Contact: 503-228-4415.
  • Madison Shockley

    Madison Shockley is the pastor of Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, Calif. He serves on Compassion and Choices’ Strategic Impact Committee, advocating for access to a full range of end-of-life care options.

    Contact: 760-729-6311 x207.
  • Daniel Sinclair

    Daniel Sinclair is a visiting law professor and fellow with the Institute on Religion, Law and Lawyer’s Work at Fordham University. He is an expert on Jewish biomedical law.

  • Paul Smith

    The Rev. Paul Smith is a pastor, civil rights activist and patient advocate. He serves on the board of advisers for Compassion & Choices, which seeks to increase access to medically assisted suicide. He is the author of Facing Death: The Deep Calling to the Deep.

  • Roy Speckhardt

    Roy Speckhardt is executive director of the American Humanist Association, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that works on behalf of the nontheistic community.

  • David Stevens

    Dr. David Stevens is chief executive officer of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, the nation’s largest faith-based organization for doctors. It is based in Bristol, Tenn.

  • Jason Tippetts

    Jason Tippetts is the widower of Kara Tippetts, who became a high-profile opponent of medically assisted suicide during her battle with cancer. He is the lead pastor of Westside Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. Contact him through this online form.

International sources

  • Liat Ayalon

    Liat Ayalon is deputy director of the school of social work at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, where she specializes in aging. She is also a member of the Bioethics Advisory Committee of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

  • David Clark

    David Clark is a professor of medical sociology at the University of Glasgow, where he leads the Glasgow End of Life Studies Group. He is also a vice president for Hospice UK and assisted the Scottish government as it drafted its framework for palliative and end of life care.

  • Philip Nitschke

    Philip Nitschke is the founder of Exit International, which asserts that choosing the time and manner of one’s death is a human right. He supported and took part in medically assisted suicide in Australia before losing his medical registration as a result of his advocacy work.

    Contact: +316 309 66992.
  • Mark Pickering

    Mark Pickering is the chief executive officer of the Christian Medical Fellowship, which serves Christians in the field of medicine in the United Kingdom.

  • Jorge Merchan Price

    Jorge Merchan Price is the author of Medical Ethics: Abuses and Controversies. He leads the Medicos Azules movement, which opposed the legalization of physician-assisted suicide in Colombia.

  • Justin Welby

    The Most Rev. Justin Welby is the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England. He has engaged a number of social issues since being installed in this role in March 2013, including poverty, climate change and medically assisted suicide.

  • Ellen Wiebe

    Ellen Wiebe is a clinical professor in the department of family practice at the University of British Columbia. She advocates for access to medically assisted suicide and, after Canada legalized the practice, developed an organization called Hemlock AID to help patients and doctors understand their rights.