When someone close to you has suffered a lot, it alters how you listen to and sympathize with others in similar circumstances. Such was my response to Brittany Maynard’s very sad illness and death on November 1. And yet, something disturbs me even more than her tragic suffering.
What is death with dignity?
The so-called “Death with Dignity” movement, with which Maynard aligned herself, rests on the premise that human dignity is ultimately based on the absolute autonomy of each individual. On that basis, right-to-die defenders maintain that Brittany Maynard’s choice to end her own life allowed her to die with dignity by controlling her own death. One supporter argued that she worked “on behalf of anyone who may at some point find themselves in similar dire circumstances, and who deserves the option to determine their own fate.”
But if Maynard’s decision was a private matter, then why did she choose to turn it into a public political campaign? The movement she joined holds that death is preferable to a variety of adverse circumstances, and that there is a right to end one’s life when one chooses. These are expansive moral claims with no apparent boundaries. Right-to-die advocates demand that the state sanction their moral code and impose it on everyone. This is one reason why absolute individual autonomy does not give people dignity. In life and death matters, it infringes on others and degrades dignity.
It’s not about choices.
Joni Eareckson Tada recently elaborated on some other reasons. Tada, another Californian, is a quadriplegic who has also suffered from cancer and chronic pain. She made an impassioned plea urging Maynard to reconsider her course before she died. Tada, believes, as do many others, that mandating a so-called right to die would pose serious dangers, even for those who would not choose it.
In her post here, Tada points out that the right to refuse treatment is already legally protected. She notes that insisting on the option of assisted suicide would actually interfere with hospice care. It would also send a signal to poor families that though there might not be money to care for their critical conditions, the state will be happy to make it easier for them to commit suicide. And if showing compassion is equated with assisting suicide, then advanced pain management therapies, already widely available, would be less valued and used. The death with dignity movement, it turns out, is about restricting, not expanding choices.
But don’t take my word for it. Read the website of Compassion and Choices, the organization with which Maynard joined forces. You won’t have to read far before noticing that for all their talk about choices, they are most interested in promoting only one choice: assisted suicide. They were founded as The Hemlock Society, whose primary mission was “providing information to dying persons and supporting legislation permitting physician-assisted suicide.”
Two Stories, Two World Views, Two Legacies
During the weeks before Brittany Maynard ended her own life, I could not help but remember another woman with a similar story. Two years ago today, my sister Ruth left this life for another. Like Maynard, Ruth was born in California, and was also a young married woman when diagnosed with cancer. Maynard described the “bone splitting headaches” caused by her disease. My sister endured this and much more, not for a few months, but for years. Both women spoke out publicly, desiring to use their experiences to help other suffering people.
But Maynard experienced her tragic illness with a very different worldview. She suppressed her knowledge of God by denying His existence. She believed that only by controlling her death could she die with dignity.
Ruth recognized that we are not self-existent beings, and that our dignity is rooted in our being made in the image of our Creator. She knew that only Jesus holds the keys of death (Revelation 1:18). She understood that arranging the time and means of one’s own death is at best only negotiating the terms of one’s own demise. “Controlling our own destinies” is a vain imagination.
A very different response flows from this understanding. Joni Earkeckson Tada has devoted her adult life to advocating and caring for people with disabilities through Joni and Friends International Disability Center. In her own humble and lesser known way, Ruth gave her last years not planning her death, but giving hope and comfort to others. (Access her ministry resources here).
There is another story like Ruth’s, which I once shared with her, one that is very different in the details, yet in essence the same. Geoffrey Bull, a Scottish missionary to the Tibetans, was captured by the communist Chinese army and wrongly charged as a spy when China invaded Tibet. During his more than three-year imprisonment, Bull suffered frequent physical deprivations, severe loneliness and brutal, seemingly endless psychological brainwashing.
At the end of his book, When Iron Gates Yield, Bull recorded the thoughts he had before arriving at the British frontier post at Hong Kong. Reflecting on his years in captivity he wrote, “With blow after blow, I had been spiritually and psychologically bludgeoned, until I was dazed and broken in mind and spirit, but none had been able to pluck me from my Shepherd and His Father’s hand. In the crisis, I had found my faith and love at times too weak to hold Him fast, but the final triumph was not to be in my hold of Him, but in His hold of me . . . . I was broken, but I had proved His Word unbreakable.”
That too, was Ruth’s testimony. She relinquished control of her life to the One who gave it. That was her final triumph.