The Indignity of a Death with Dignity

The story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year old newlywed who has been given the diagnosis of terminal glioblastoma, an especially aggressive brain tumor, has gone viral over the past week. Many know the story already, but it centers on her decision to end her life by taking an oral medication prescribed by her physician, who will be sitting at her bedside with her husband and other members of her family at the end, at a date she has selected to coincide with her husband’s birthday later this month. The details are chronicled in People magazine, which is significant because of the role the magazine plays as gatekeeper for what is to be considered culturally-normative, and because it is where you can see the heart-wrenching video she and her husband prepared to explain her decisions.

I will not attempt to mount a thorough rebuttal to her choice of physician-assisted suicide, one made to avoid the certain-suffering that will face her as cancer ravages her mind and body. Perhaps the best, most elegant response I have seen can be found here, the words of a fellow traveler on the awful road of terminal glioblastoma. Other responses, including a Matt Walsh blog and even a debate on the Blaze, offer great commentary as well.

But so much of what Brittany says needs to be answered by many more, those who have profound objections to what she is saying, because she is sharing this difficult and intimate season of her life for reasons of advocacy. She, her husband, family and doctor support the causes of the “Death with Dignity” movement with the organization “Compassion and Choices.” After her diagnosis, Brittany specifically moved to Oregon where the process of physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is legal. Within the People article itself, there are plenty of opportunities to see how semantics will be used in the future to argue for PAS.

Brittany makes it clear that, in her view, this is not suicide…she does not wish to die, but her life is to be taken from her by cancer and “it’s a terrible, terrible way to die.” I don’t disagree with the latter sentiment…I pray that it will not be the way I leave this life, either. But I believe that my life is not my own…I ceased believing it was long ago…and I have no authority to decide how I leave it. I trust a Lord who has never ceased to be my advocate for what is best for me, and I will trust that same Lord with my eternity. But those who attempt suicide, or succeed, rarely think that ending life is what they really want, but that the “terrible, terrible” pain they face makes death the better answer. If the pain (emotional or physical) would end, suicide would be unnecessary.

She addresses ethics: “I believe this choice is ethical, and what makes it ethical is it is a choice.” Again, I don’t want to be cruel to someone who is suffering in a way in which I have no way to relate, but this argument is both insipid and dangerous. It is the latter because it is supported by little ethical framework than that of radical autonomy. She believes that, because she can ostensibly change her mind at any time (and many pray that she will), all is right with her choice. Never mind that it seems unlikely that someone so committed to the cause as she will join many (nearly half) of those who sign on with the “Death with Dignity” provisions, getting prescriptions written…and never follow through. Perhaps she will not find herself as free as she thinks. As resources become scarcer, some with the “choice” will find other subtle (or not-so-subtle) pressures to follow through. Beyond coercion, “choice,” as an ethical paradigm, also fails to account for collateral damage to others.

Brittany has had a remarkable life in her 29 years. Her accomplishments, including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, show someone who has been in control of her life. The beautiful photos attest to a young woman that seems to be dying in her prime. There is a sense that she fears the pain that accompanies death from a terrible disease, but the greater sense is that she will lose control. Pain can be controlled by medication; control of one’s fate, once lost, is irrecoverable.

Her final sentiments are spoken thusly: “I’m dying, but I’m choosing to suffer less,” she says, “to put myself through less physical and emotional pain and my family as well.” This last part makes me want to cry. I have no idea what her faith system is, but I see that it isn’t one that can find the redemptive value in suffering, in the “ministry of dependency” that comes from letting others love us well when we leave this life. I am not a vitalist; I don’t want to live my life for as long as possible and at all costs. But I do want to let my faith be revealed in the trust I place in God and the people with who I have been blessed to share my sojourn on this Earth. It’s a trust that means that as I lose lucidity and seem less dignified, I will know that my true dignity as a being created in the very Image of my God, one undiminished by a time of mental and physical incapacity that occurs before I pass into an eternity that bids pain and sorrow goodbye forever. The indignity of a rotten death pales in comparison to that inherent dignity. I wish Brittany that same knowledge.

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Jon Holmlund
Jon Holmlund

Jerry, thank you for a great post. Besides following all the links you provide, might I suggest we also remember/consult these: 1. Do not forget that “Compassion and Choices” is the [Orwellian] re-branding of the “Hemlock Society.” 2. Check out the blog of Kara Tippetts, which she calls “Mundane Faithfulness.” She is suffering from breast cancer metastatic to the brain, and offers additional “counter testimonials” to those of Ms. Maynard. In case the hyperlink does not work, here’s the link: 3. Kara separately posted, on the blog “A Holy Experience” by one Ann Voskamp, a letter to Brittany Maynard.… Read more »