Faye Girsh is the Founder and the Past President of the Hemlock Society of San Diego. She was the President of the National Hemlock Society (Defunct) and the World Federation of RTD Societies (Extant). Currently, she is on the Advisory Board of the Final Exit Network and the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization. Here we talk about the extensive and deep loss of moral authority.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: One of the main perceived moral authorities – and sometimes, rightly – have been hierarchical and patriarchal (supremely male-run, male-owned) institutions bound to assertions of transcendent, if not divine, powers of ethical judgment.
These continue to die with the onslaughts of modernity, not explicitly perceivable in the raw numbers but, observable in the rights afforded to women against the dictates of their divinely-ordained domineers, protections provided for children from robed predators, science applied to technology to ease life in ways only excused by former sacerdotalism, and… streaming television.
How has the weakening of the moral authority of religious institutions permitted an opening for questions about individual choice in the most profound topic of human life, death, only equalled by its opposite, conscious life?
Faye Girsh: Wow, what a question!!! Surely the response is that with the increasing power of Humanism, in art, theology, music, literature, etc. the individual is more reliant on their own decisions and judgment. I am not sure it is the authoritarian structure that forms the opposition to assisted dying as much as tradition, unfounded fears, and the tendency to not change things. The U.S. is struggling with this much more than Canada which has taken so many progressive steps forward, and is moving rapidly, toward a rational system of assisted dying. Canada is not hidebound by the reactionary forces we have and is providing people with choices we may never get to in the U.S. By the way, I do think the ancients had doctors who did not allow them to suffer and took matters in their own hands. It is the amazing progression of modern medicine that has reinforced the ethic of Do Everything — Death is a Failure.
Jacobsen: What nuanced qualms around death have most waned in the blazing trails of individual freethought?
Girsh: The idea of an AfterLife has been a constraint to all kinds of behaviour, with the Big Court in the Sky deciding if you will burn in Hell for your Sins. Without this very successful form of social control humans have more freedom to make their own choices with consequences being governed by natural law. Now many are coerced into living by “loving” relatives and a medical system that sees death as defeat.
Right now in our country, we are trying to find a morality that should govern human behaviour even when man-made laws are being flouted. Many people feel it is consistent with their morality to determine the time and manner of their death. They are constrained only by lacking the means to do it.
Others still cling to the idea that they should not be in control of Life, that there is a cosmic order determining when and how we die. Those who reject ending their suffering often do so because they cling to the pleasures of living, or the difficulties of finding a peaceful death while others are still bound by the ideas of Sin and God and the Final Judgment.
Jacobsen: Some theologians, in the past, have, to their credit, emphasized individual conscience as the final arbiter in ethical decisions. How has this influenced the growth and development of theologies for dying with dignity religious groups, rational suicide faith-based organizations?
Girsh: Some supporters of the right to choose your own death have been respected theologians, albeit they are in the minority. One such person has been Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong who has openly supported self-determination and the futility of suffering. In a plea to the U.S. Congress, he stated, “I come to these conclusions as a Christian…My personal creed asserts that every person is sacred. I see the holiness of life enhanced, not diminished, by letting people have a say in how they choose to die….
Many of us want the moral and legal right to choose to die with our faculties intact, surrounded by those we love before we are reduced to breathing cadavers, with no human dignity attached to our final days…Life must not be identified with the extension of biological existence…..”
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Faye.
Girsh: Thanks, Scott.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.