On September 18, United Church of Christ minister Kristi Denham announced that a new organization of clergy called the End of Life Consultation Service (ELCS) had been created that would be devoted to ministering to critically ill medical patients . Rev. Denham explained that this organization would "help terminal patients access hospice, pain treatment, and other excellent end of life care."
At first glance, the ELCS sounds like a charitable Christian group devoted to helping the sick and suffering, or another new ministry devoted to providing spiritual assurance to the gravely ill. Well, not exactly. What makes this organization different from many others is that the ELCS’s main purpose is to assist medical patients in planning their own deaths. And as might be expected, one of the options for a patient’s death offered by the ELCS includes committing suicide.
The new organization plans to man a 1-800 hotline that would provide potential callers with "volunteers [who would] visit patients and families in the home, and together they [could] identify a path to peaceful dying, well-suited to an individual’s illness and circumstances." After the consultation, the clients would then be free to "obtain and self-administer the means" of killing themselves.
Rev. Denham also noted that the creation of the ELCS was precipitated by the failure of the California Compassionate Choices Act (AB374), an act similar to Oregon’s assisted-suicide law, to pass through the California state legislature. This failure to legalize doctor-assisted suicide was not attributed to the reluctance of legislators to open the door to medically endorsed killing but was simply chalked up by Rev. Denham to the legislature’s "playing politics."
As disturbing as the creation of the ELCS is, with its effort to wrap doctor¯assisted suicide in clerical attire, its methods are really nothing new. Indeed, one cannot fail to see the parallel between the creation of the ELCS and the effort forty years ago by activist clergymen and women to legalize abortion.
The pro-choice movement in the 1960s and 1970s was greatly assisted by many Christian denominations’ support for the liberalization of existing abortion laws. The American Baptist Church, the Episcopal Church, the two denominations that became the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) all spoke out in support of legal abortion. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, which is today seen as one of the most pro-life denominations, originally approved of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, calling it an advance in the efforts for "religious liberty."
Much of this early Christian support for the legalization of abortion was driven by an organization called the Clergy Consultation Service (CCS) (name sound familiar?) which was started by the Rev. Howard Moody, an American Baptist minister in New York. In 1967, this organization, which consisted of a group of twenty-one ministers and rabbis, began providing a referral service for women seeking illegal abortions. It seems that the ordained members of the CCS, much like the ELCS today, were deeply frustrated by the inability of state legislatures to change existing abortion laws, and so they took the law into their own hands. The CCS grew quickly, becoming active in twenty states before the Roe v. Wade decision. Rev. Denham’s statement expresses her pride in being associated with "Rev. Moody, who has shown how clergy and caring advocates can change the law to meet current social needs through personal action."
Dr. Jean Garton, in her classic pro-life book, Who Broke the Baby? , noted that the legalization of abortion opened the door to a dangerous and destructive "new ethic." She wrote,
In the acceptance of abortion-on-demand, there occurs a subtle but profound shift in the attitude of society toward all people who are unwanted, imperfect, and dependent. The same forces involved in legalizing abortion, while claiming to alleviate the suffering of a woman with an unwanted pregnancy, are the same forces involved in the promotion of infanticide and euthanasia, claiming to want to eliminate the suffering of the handicapped, sick, and senile. When we choose to offer death as an alternative to suffering, the list of those who qualify under "the new ethic" expands greatly.
Perhaps the only question is why the End of Life Consultation Service was so long in coming.
Dennis Di Mauro is secretary of the National Pro-Life Religious Council , president of Northern Virginia Lutherans for Life, and a doctoral student in church history at Catholic University.