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'Til death': Unless you have Alzheimer's?

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Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson caused a firestorm after he told his “700 Club” viewers that divorcing a spouse who battles Alzheimer’s is justifiable because the disease is “a kind of death.” Reaction ranged from shock and outrage by many online, to charges that the chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, which airs the "700 Club," was being un-Christian.

“How do you pick and choose what sickness you should divorce??? This is just ignorant…”in sickness and in health DUH,” one reader responded on Facebook.

The controversy erupted when Robertson advised a call-in viewer that a male friend could see another woman after his wife began suffering from the memory-robbing disease.

“I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again,” but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her,” Robertson said. Most Christian denominations believe adultery is the only legitimate reason for divorce and, according to the Gospel of Mark, divorcing and remarrying also is considered adultery.

The former Republican presidential candidate said he wouldn’t “put a guilt trip” on anyone who divorces a spouse who suffers from the illness, and added that people should get "some ethicist to give you the answer."

We posed the issue to ethicist Arthur Caplan, Ph.D. The regular columnist and professor of bioethics at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania said Robertson was brave for making the suggestion.

"I think it is a remarkably courageous statement and unexpected; he did not have to wade into this very sensitive area," said Caplan. "I am not in a position to comment on divorce but if Alzheimer's is so severe that it robs a person of any possibility of love or being loved, communicating or being aware then it seems humane and ethical to me to permit a spouse to move on to another relationship, if that is what they wish to do."

Readers sound off on Facebook

But for Donna MacInnes of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., the guilt trip would be if she didn't care for her 84-year-old husband, John, who has been dealing with Alzheimer's for the last six years. She has stood by him for 22 years, and even when he nearly ran over her with a golf cart when he first began having cognitive issues.

“If Pat Robertson is saying that I should break my commitment of love and marriage in a Christian view, that’s awful,” MacInnes said. “We don’t go off and leave someone to die. That’s not who we are ... I take care of my husband, and I am there for him.”

Dian Wilkins, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Michigan, Southfield, said the comment left her in a state of shock.

“I was shocked that divorce was the first option he would suggest,” she said. “We care for tens of thousands of people with Alzheimer’s across the country, and we don’t see that trend at all.”

In fact, she says, it’s more likely to be opposite. In times of trouble with the devastating and debilitating disease, couples stay together.

“We have seen people remain supportive, get help in the home, call the Alzheimer’s Association or whatever they need to do to help the person and help themselves.”