Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
FILE - President Thomas S. Monson sits with his counselors President Henry B. Eyring First Counselor First Presidency and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency at the beginning of the Sunday morning session of the 186th Semiannual General Conference at the Conference Center for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. The First Presidency has sent letters to Mormons in four states asking them to speak out against bills that would legalize physician-assisted suicide and recreational marijuana use in their states.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The LDS Church's First Presidency is asking the faith's members in four western states to oppose bills that would legalize doctor-assisted suicide and recreational marijuana use.

Church President Thomas S. Monson and his counselors sent a letter Wednesday to Mormons in Colorado, where Proposition 106 would legalize physician-assisted suicide.

"We urge church members to let their voices be heard in opposition to measures that would legalize physician-assisted suicide," said the letter signed by President Monson, President Henry B. Eyring and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who make up the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They sent a similar letter Wednesday to Mormons in Arizona, California and Nevada about marijuana legislation.

"We urge church members to let their voices be heard in opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana use," the letter said.

The LDS Church leaders referred both to church policies as well as research-based reasons for opposing the measures.

The letters are also an example of the church's insistence that the Constitution gives both the church and its members the right to speak up in the public square. In Colorado, Catholic bishops are maintaining the same position. Their website opposing Proposition 106 quotes Pope Francis: "A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern," Pope Francis

Assisted suicide

Polls have shown majority support for Proposition 106, but the editorial boards of the Denver Post and Colorado Springs Gazette have called for its defeat, citing a lack of safeguards in the bill and a statewide suicide crisis.

The bill, "Access to Medical Aid-in-Dying Medication" would allow terminally ill patients to take a life-ending, doctor-prescribed sleeping medication. Supporters say patients diagnosed with fewer than six months to live should have the choice to relieve their suffering by dying by suicide.

LDS Church policy considers assisted suicide to be euthanasia and a violation of God's commandments, according to a church policy guide known as Handbook 2, which is referred to in the letter.

"The church maintains a firm belief in the sanctity of human life," the First Presidency letter said, "and opposes deliberately taking the life of a person even when the person may be suffering from an incurable condition or disease. Life is a sacred gift and should be cherished even in difficult circumstances."

Church leaders noted that physician-assisted suicide is permitted by law in some states and countries but said research has uncovered problems with the practice.

"Experience suggests that such legalization can endanger the vulnerable, erode trust in the medical profession and cheapen human life and dignity," the First Presidency wrote. "Moreover, the decision to end one's life carries a lasting impact far beyond the person whose life is ending."

Suicide contagion

"The church is right to be concerned," said Margaret Dore, president of Choice is an Illusion, a group based in Washington, which has a physician-assisted suicide law, as does neighboring Oregon.

"Basically, the Colorado bill makes people sitting ducks for their relatives, or their heirs and other predators," Dore said. "It's a recipe for elder abuse, really. It's a suicide contagion issue, too. It sends the wrong message to young people. In Oregon, there is a correlation between assisted suicide and youth suicide."

Oregon's suicide rate, excluding physician-assisted suicides, has increased steadily since its law passed in 1997 to 42 percent above the national average in 2012. Suicide is the leading cause of death among 18- to 34-year-old Oregonians and is rising among older demographics in the state as well.

Colorado's leading Catholic bishops cited a similar concern in their opposition to Proposition 106, calling it flawed logic to support a suicide bill in a state with seventh-highest suicide rate in the nation. Two years ago, Colorado introduced a new zero-suicide initiative.

"It is illogical for the state to promote and/or facilitate suicide for one group of persons, calling the suicides of those with a terminal illness and a specific prognosis 'dignified and humane,' while recognizing suicide as a serious statewide public health concern in all other circumstances, and spending enormous resources to combat it," the bishops said on the website of the Colorado Catholic Conference, the church's statewide, public policy agency.

The Colorado Springs Gazette published an editorial titled "Vote 'no' in Colorado on more suicide," and called suicide a crisis in the state — 1,000 Colorado kids died by suicide in 2015.

The Denver Post's editorial, published Wednesday, questioned whether medical professionals could be trusted to prescribe the lethal drug properly.

"We don’t have unfettered faith in all doctors’ ability to handle that responsibility," wrote the editorial board.

End of life

Dore is disturbed by the bill's lack of safeguards, too.

"There's no required oversight of the death," she said. "No doctor or witness is required. If you think of it as physician-assisted suicide, it's a misnomer. Another family member can pick it up at the pharmacy."

End-of-life issues are real and complex, which was noted in the First Presidency letter.

LDS Church policy does state that "when dying becomes inevitable, it should be seen as a blessing and a purposeful part of eternal existence," according to another handbook policy referenced in the First Presidency letter.

The letter quoted that policy: "While the church opposes physician-assisted suicide, members should not feel obligated to extend mortal life through means that are unreasonable. Decisions in such cases are best made by family members after receiving wise and competent medical advice and seeking divine guidance through fasting and prayer."

Recreational marijuana

The First Presidency's letter to members in Arizona, California and Nevada noted that bills in those states and others are considering the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.

"Drug abuse in the United States is at epidemic proportions," the First Presidency noted, "and the dangers of marijuana to public health and safety are well documented. Recent studies have shed light particularly on the risks that marijuana use poses to brain development in youth. The accessibility of recreational marijuana in the home is also a danger to children."

Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use for those over 21. On Nov. 8, Nevada residents will vote on Question 2, Arizona residents will consider Proposition 205 and Californians will decide on Proposition 64. Maine and Massachusetts also have recreational marijuana on voters' ballots next month.

As noted in the church's letter, a growing number of scientific studies show that marijuana use disrupts brain development, according a review of the literature published by the American Psychological Association. Findings suggest structural and functional brain changes, and one decades-long longitudinal study showed an average loss of six IQ points among persistent users, similar to damage from exposure to lead.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse launched the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study this year. The longitudinal study of 10,000 American children, including 1,000 Utah children working with University of Utah researchers, will study brain development from ages 9 to 19. Research includes interviews with clinical psychologists and an MRI. The goal is to learn about the effects of drugs, alcohol, concussions and other variables.

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com