MILWAUKEE -- The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, known as one of the nation's most liberal religious bodies, drew loud applause during the denomination's General Assembly here when he said doctor-assisted suicide could be an "honorable response" to suffering.
The comments of the Rev. William Schulz, who has headed the association for five years, came less than three weeks after the highly publicized doctor-assisted suicide of a Unitarian woman from Portland, Ore.
The gathering that ended June 26 attracted 1,349 delegates representing the association's 190,000 members.
In the case of the Portland woman, Janet Adkins, 54, died June 4 after Jack Kevorkian, a retired Michigan pathologist, attached a device to her that allowed her to give herself a lethal dose of chemicals.
In his address to assembly delegates, Schulz said, "In my opinion, doctor-assisted self-termination, particularly after the kind of extensive reflection and pastoral care rendered in this case, can be an honorable response to suffering, and I say Janet Adkins deserves both our honor and our tears."
The denomination endorsed such actions as part of a right-to-death-with-dignity resolution it adopted in 1988.
Schulz also noted, "I need not praise the person of the doctor to praise the principle of compassion and to remind us that we judge another's suffering at our peril."
At the time of her suicide, Adkins was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, an irreversible degeneration of brain cells that can lead to severe memory loss and dementia. She was not in the final stages of the disease and was healthy except for memory loss, which her pastor described as devastating to Adkins.
The Unitarian Universalist Association, which has its headquarters in Boston, was formed in 1961 through the merger of two 18th century religious traditions, the Unitarians and the Universalists.
The denomination describes itself as "a liberal, creedless religion with Judeo-Christian roots, but which also draws from Eastern, humanist and other religious movements."