Right-to-Die Billboard Campaign Sparks Moral Debate

A bold sign along a busy New Jersey highway -- "My Life / My Death / My Choice / FinalExitNetwork.org" – is the signature poster of a "right to die" billboard campaign that is sparking controversy among clergy and suicide prevention organizations across the country.

"What we're trying to do is to let people know that we're here, that there are choices out there, that there are options they don't know about and that death is something that rational people should thinking about," says Bob Levine, the 88-year-old vice president of the New Jersey chapter of the Final Exit Network, the group behind the campaign.

They've put up the sign in New Jersey, and one in San Francisco, and another in Florida may be in the works. The ads are aimed at people suffering from terminal illness, usually the elderly, who are in pain and see no future quality of life.

"We think that the choice clearly is theirs and no one else's," says Levine, who watched his first wife die in pain from cancer.

But Jim Goodness, spokesman for the Newark Archdiocese, says the campaign "contradicts everything the Catholic teaching says.... Our lives are to be respected and cherished."

Goodness says he understands that it is very "sorrowful and saddening" to see someone suffer from a terminal and painful illness, but the church's role is to alleviate suffering, not bring "a cessation to the life."

The billboard on the West Coast prompted the San Francisco Archdiocese to issue this statement:

"Our Catholic belief, along with most other faith traditions, is that our lives belong to an infinitely loving God. It is God's decision when our natural lives will end. This billboard expresses a secular and highly individualistic philosophy that counters this belief."

The Church has no plans to protest the billboards, citing freedom of speech rights.

Levine, an agnostic, says he has no problem with other people's religious beliefs. "If you want to say, well, God just has to take it (my life) that's OK as far as I'm concerned for you, but certainly not for me."

But suicide prevention expert Dr. Judith Springer, a board member of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide, says she is "horrified" by the signs. She says they are irresponsible because you can't control who sees them.

"We're talking about a lot of people feeling desperate and suicidal. To be in that state and see that sign is an unnecessary risk," she said.

"I had a girl in my office who said, 'I feel as if I'm walking down a long hall, and all the doors are locked except the one that leads to death.'

"If someone sees that sign," Springer warned, "they may say that's the way."

Levine says, "Where are their parents? Where are their teachers? Where are the people around them? I mean, we can't take responsibility for every kid that reads a billboard any more than anyone else can."

But Springer says it's not always easy to spot a depressed kid or a desperate adult. For every suicide, she said, there are 50 to 100 people who attempt it.

Every two minutes, someone under the age of 25 commits suicide, she said.

"When kids are in a desperate state they're not rational," she said. "When people are driving down that highway who are depressed and stressed, their problem solving abilities are truncated."

But Springer says she's not opposed to Final Exit's mission, just how they're delivering the message.

"I visited the website and it's populated by elderly folks who are at the end of a very long life and are in pain," she said. "That's a whole different issue to me."

And that's where the secular and sacred worlds part. None of the major religions condone suicide, as defined as the willful taking of one's own life, says religion scholar Stephen Prothero, author of "God is Not One" and "Religious Literacy."

"Suicide is forbidden in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," and it is considered "bad karma in Buddhism and Hinduism," he said.

But the question of whether it is acceptable to end pain and suffering or commit to martyrdom is nuanced in many faiths.

"Life is God's gift to us, but not at all costs," said Newark Archbishop John J. Meyers. "History has shown that some have chosen martyrdom instead of denying God."

Islamic terrorists have shown the world a side of martyrdom that breeds havoc and kills thousands of innocent lives, even though moderate Muslims say true Islam does not allow for that.

But Pastor Tom Nelson of Denton Bible Church says martyrdom "is not taking your life (or anyone else's). It's giving your life." He says that's a major distinction, even when a person is in severe pain.

Nelson, author of "A Life Well-Lived," says nowhere in the Bible is there a glorified suicide. "You see good men wishing they were dead, and asking God to take their life" -- like Jonah or Elijah. "But they never do it themselves."

One of the problems with our society is that we never have conversations about death, said Rabbi Irwin Kula. It's the common denominator of all human beings, the great equalizer, yet most of our talk is polarized.

"What we need is a genuine conversation about what it means to die, which we don't have,"

said Kula, author of "Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life."

"The billboard is rhetoric, it avoids conversation," he said. He also said it's part truth. "It's not 'my life', it's both my life and God's life.... It's not just my choice, it's my choice and God's choice."You're not here alone. You’re part of a network."

He said even an atheist has to admit that.

In the Jewish faith, Kula said, the argument is about where to draw the line. In an age of advanced medical technology, people can be kept alive far longer than was possible before. But what is ethical or moral? Should we go to extreme heroic means to keep someone breathing, or unplug devices and let the person die naturally? And what's the difference between "naturally" and helping the process along?

Kula says it depends on which rabbi you ask, and also on these questions: "How imminent is death? How terminal? Can the pain be controlled? What is the quality of life? How soon is death anticipated?"

His argument is that the billboard doesn't pose these questions.

But Levine says if people contact Final Exit, people like him will ask those questions and determine if the person is in a right mind to make a decision. He says the organization will not assist the suicide or give the person the tools to complete the task. But they will tell them how.

"We won't physically help anybody die.... The only thing we do, once they're at the point where they want to die, is we'll be there with them."

The New Jersey billboard is scheduled to stay up until July 27. Levine says "it's a fair possibility" it may stay longer. They're asking supporters for donations to help fund the campaign.