Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, invited public debate on assisted suicide when she announced through the Compassion and Choices organization her decision to move to Oregon to take advantage of its “right to die” law, where she died by lethal prescription on Nov. 1. It is a tragic case. But was Brittany’s decision courageous and a victory for freedom, as advocates of assisted-suicide claim, or does it undermine the sanctity of life?
Brittany chose death, she said, to spare her loved ones from seeing her suffer and because she also, very understandably, feared the physical suffering her doctors promised she would endure. I don’t know what Brittany’s thoughts on God were, but the issue evokes the often asked question, “If God is all powerful and good, then why does He allow bad things to happen to people?”
The question is rooted in atheism, which directs us to observe the evil around us as proof that there is no God. But although suffering does exist, God does not will that we suffer, just as He did not will that Adam and Eve sin. And while nobody, save masochists, wants to suffer, some believe it can actually be redemptive.
Catholicism, for instance, teaches that suffering, when accepted and offered up in union with the Passion of Jesus, can aid in the physical or spiritual needs of oneself or another. And when Christ tells us to "take up your cross and follow me” (Mt.16:24), we are invited to that union with Him in our own suffering.
Of course not everyone holds this biblical view and I don’t assume to know what Brittany believed or experienced. I only know my personal experience in watching my own mother’s battle with terminal brain cancer and how her lifelong witness of faith, especially during that difficult time, brought me to a more full understanding that her suffering was not from God, but the grace to endure it was.
This is what saddens me about Brittany’s suicide and all those who do the same. Do they seek to escape their suffering because of a lonely fear not rooted in unity with God? I don’t claim to know their reasons, but when we do remove God from life’s challenges, we’re left only with our human fears and the decisions we make based on those fears. And where will such decisions ultimately take us as a society?
In a world that prizes free choice above all else, Brittany’s highly publicized “death by choice” is applauded by some as a victory for freedom, which plays right into the culture of death that has taken such ghoulish hold of our world. Just as abortion is packaged as “liberating” to women, we are now seeing the disturbingly misguided concept that all choice is good choice – “as long as it’s my choice” – being applied toward achieving our own deaths. How terribly sad.
But if we use freedom as the basis for ending life, then at what point can we put a limit on that freedom? The simple answer is, we can’t. If it is seen as cruel to suggest someone should endure suffering, then why shouldn’t society advocate lethal prescriptions for everyone the instant a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer is made?
And why stop there? Under the premise of freedom, we shouldn’t expect a diabetic to endure the challenges that come with that condition. Nor should we expect someone heartbroken by unrequited love to withstand that sort of suffering. In fact, why not advocate death for anyone whose quality of life is not what they expect? A visit to any pro assisted-suicide chat room will show you this is precisely what is being encouraged now.
Maybe this explains why so many young people today choose suicide when bullied. They’ve grown up witnessing that personal comfort is valued over human life itself. What lessons are youngsters being taught that suffering is a part of life and that their own lives are sacred, even if not perfect?
Interestingly though, when we hear of someone’s suicide, such as recently with Robin Williams, there is an outcry over the tragedy of it because by nature we see suicide as a heartbreaking choice. How, then, is it any less tragic just because someone publicly plans her suicide with a physician’s assistance?
In a way, it’s even worse, because by normalizing death as a solution to life’s problems, more people will opt for it, and eventually it may no longer be the suffering individual’s despair – but our own despair over someone else’s suffering -- that becomes justification to end a life.
Case in point, there are end-of-life counseling directives in Obamacare, and the first expense slashed under the health law was billions of dollars to treat the elderly. How many “suffering” people are encouraged to die to save money altogether or because a “compassionate” society desensitized to death – but not to suffering -- decides on someone’s behalf that suffering should be rejected? And just who decides how much suffering is too much?
This is what happens, though, when we blur the boundaries of life’s value: We subject ourselves to others’ notions of what life should be, while providing protective cover to those who would seek to have us die.
I pray for Brittany’s soul and for her grieving loved ones. I also pray that life, not death, is what our culture exalts, despite the challenges that life brings. And while we should always seek new and better ways to reduce suffering, assisted suicide offers relief only at the expense of human life itself; human life that has God-given dignity and unseen purpose, from conception to natural death.