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Medical Aid in Dying is a Christian Option to Stop End-of-Life Suffering

By Father Luis Barrios The spanish version of this original op-ed ran in El Diario New York on February 14, 2017
Father Luis Barrios, pastor of Episcopal Santa Cruz and professor at John Jay University

Father Luis Barrios, pastor of Episcopal Santa Cruz and professor at John Jay University

I don’t have a problem with the notion of death, because death is a part of life. It’s how we face it and the way we go through the dying process that makes a difference.

It’s a blessing that the New York State Legislature is considering a bill to authorize medical aid in dying. Terminally ill, mentally competent adults with a prognosis of six months or less to live should have the option to request a doctor’s prescription for medication they can decide to take if their suffering becomes unbearable. And on February 14, I will join other faith leaders at the State Capitol in Albany for a interfaith prayer of love and compassion for terminally ill New Yorkers.

Unfortunately, there are a handful of powerful opponents that would keep this option from the vast majority of New Yorkers who want it.

As a priest, I have been blessed to counsel many New Yorkers as they prepare for the end of their lives. I sat at their bedside as they begged for help to die. It is the memory of these people that has helped me to lend my voice today to help authorize the medical practice of aid in dying.

There was something sacred about ministering to the dying who begged for relief. Little did I know these experiences prepared me for the day my brother Samuel, in light of his weakened and final stages of AIDS, told he me wanted me to help him die peacefully.

End-of-life care options

Medical aid in dying has been making headlines among Latinos in New York because of the advocacy of recently deceased Miguel Carrasquillo and the new support for this end-of-life care option by Assistant Speaker Felix W. Ortiz and Assemblymember Robert J. Rodriguez.

Medical aid in dying is currently authorized in six states: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, California, and Colorado. In addition, Congress is reviewing a bill the D.C. Council approved to authorize this end-of-life care option.

Miguel’s horrific suffering from terminal brain cancer prompted him to record videos in English and in Spanish to urge legislators across the country to pass medial aid-in-dying laws, including in his former home states of New York and Illinois, and native Puerto Rico. Miguel also recorded this cell phone video on May 25, just 10 days before his agonizing death on June 5, 2016 (Spanish version of video).

Seven months have passed since Miguel, a Catholic, died at the young age of 35. But his death is already making a difference among the Latino community he fought for until his last breath.

In fact, 69% of Hispanics nationwide support medical aid in dying, according to a new survey conducted by LifeWay Research.  Most religious group members who participated in the survey also said medical aid in dying is “morally acceptable,” including: 70% of Catholics; 59% of all Christians; 53% of Protestants; 70% of people in other religions and 84% of those who identified as non-religious.  

I recently met Miguel’s mom, Nilsa Centeno, when we joined Compassion & Choices to launch a bilingual campaign in New York in November to educate state residents about the bipartisan medical aid-in-dying bill. We spoke about her son’s last wishes of Latinos to embrace the option of medical aid in dying to prevent the unbearable suffering that he experienced because it was not available to him in his native Puerto Rico. His suffering reminded me of my brother’s painful death.

End of life options

Of course, this end-of-life care option may not be for everyone. Many good people of faith have different opinions about what decisions are right for them in the final stages of a terminal illness.

There are many ways to encounter God, and New Yorkers hold a wide array of spiritual beliefs and traditions.

My God is a God of love and compassion. A God who would not abandon a dying person who is suffering, and refuse that person the means to die peacefully. I believe that our state should adopt a law that would allow terminally ill New Yorkers to die without suffering, in whatever way is consistent with their own individual faith, values, and beliefs.

Father Luis Barrios, is a pastor at Iglesia Episcopal Santa Cruz/Holyrood Episcopal Church and professor at John Jay College in New York.