Dying and Dignity

On November 1st, Brittany Maynard, a 29 year-old Oregonian with an incurable brain tumor, took her own life using a medication prescribed by a physician specifically for this purpose. The medication, legal under the Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, was prescribed weeks earlier.

The case is well-known because Brittany became a spokesperson for efforts to expand “assisted suicide” laws to other states. Through her own efforts, her story appeared in numerous publications and websites, and has been held up by the organization “Compassion & Choices” as exemplifying the justification for making assisted suicide legal nationwide.

Brittany feared many things about dying with brain cancer—her own physical pain, progressive debilitation, dependency, seizures, as well as emotional pain for her family. To avoid these through her own choice, was to die with “dignity”. This term has been held tightly by assisted suicide advocates, such as by the Swiss group “Dignitas”. The organization “Compassion & Choices” holds to a few more terms it wishes to apply to assisted suicide.

When reading the stories about Brittany it is difficult to bring oneself to find fault with her decisions, knowing the heartbreak that she and her family were going through. It is as if such conversations themselves are too painful, and so, like Brittany Maynard did of her life, we terminate them before they’re complete.

But there is much to critique about “assisted suicide”. What is striking is the usurpation of terms, most notably the term “dignity”. It is a shallow interpretation indeed, for according to the website http://www.thebrittanyfund.org, to die with dignity is to die “in control”. The term “dignity” is reduced to describe the ultimate act of autonomy. To give it the imprimatur of compassion and approval, a physician prescribes the fatal medication; we know full well, however, that physicians are not necessary participants should one decide to end his or her life.

Real dignity is much more. I thought about the young Mrs. Maynard today after I visited a friend dying of cancer. And I thought back to my own parents’ terminal illnesses, including one with a tumor in the brain. Somehow I can’t fit the term “dignity” into any circumstance in which one of them would have willfully avoided their final moments. Those are painful days, hours, and minutes, but precious nonetheless. They bring us together, force us to cast off trivialities, and sharpen our focus on what is most important. They call out the best in us, and send us away with a sense of something greater…including perhaps a resolve to make something more of the life we are given. After all, why does God give us death but to remind us how to live?

My wife said of my mother, “She showed us how to die.” There, in a debilitated and helpless state, was true dignity. I am eternally thankful for every moment.

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