One way opponents try to discredit our movement is to assert that it contradicts spirituality or a belief in God. When asked why the law first changed in Oregon they often answer that fewer people in Oregon attend church than in any other state. Citing statistics about church attendance is an attempt to disparage Oregonians and make them seem different from other Americans.
According to Gallop polls an overwhelming majority of Americans worship a supreme spiritual being. In fact, most call this power or being "God" and believe it shapes their lives in concrete ways. Oregonians are no different on this score, but calling attention to church attendance implies that Oregon citizens are undisciplined and lacking in moral fiber. In 1998 Dr. Gregory Hamilton, a vocal opponent of Compassion in Dying, told the Dallas Morning News that Oregon has "a greater moral deficit than the other states."
Of course his accusation of immorality is absurd, but so is the underlying assumption that people who support legal assisted dying have no spiritual beliefs. For eight years Compassion has counseled clients and been present as they approach enormously difficult decisions with care and courage and often with prayer. We have seen the process of approaching death consciously further ennoble people of the greatest integrity and draw loving families even closer together. Evidence of a vibrant spiritual life and deep religious beliefs often comes to the fore.
One client whose church condemns assisted dying expressed the certainty that her God would be waiting to greet her into heaven. Another, who knew her illness meant eventual suffocation, declared that, "God wouldn't want me to suffer like that." One family member, a Native American shaman, journeyed to a sacred mountain. As our client took medication to hasten her death, he employed ancient rituals and prayers to ease her spirit across the borders of this life.
Recently I spent a week at Ghost Ranch, in New Mexico, in a community of religious scholars and devout, thoughtful individuals. During a discussion of this very issue one minister responded by saying, "Who knows the mind of God? Might not God also be working deliberately through those who do choose to end their lives?"
Compassion enjoys a long and close relationship with many religious leaders. Rev. Ralph Mero was among our founders and three prominent clergy, Bishop John Shelby Spong, Rev. Jerry Anderson and Rev. Dr. Paul Smith, serve on our Federation boards.
This newsletter announces two events in which a spiritual path and support for choice in dying coexist in complete harmony. The first is the addition of Ram Dass to the Compassion Board of Advisors. Ram Dass led an entire generation toward spiritual awakening and the Buddhist concept of right action. The other is an upcoming lecture by Neale Donald Walsch, entitled "Dying With God," offered as a benefit for Compassion in Dying.
I hope we can promote an open, respectful attitude toward each others' spiritual lives. Religious beliefs are intensely individual, shaped by one's background and personal experience of the divine. Everyone deserves to encounter death in a manner consistent with the values and beliefs they have come to cherish. "All beliefs must be tolerated," said Frederick the Great, "for every man must get to heaven his own way."