I’ve been surprised by my personal response to the spectacle that’s recently played out in our media over Brittany Maynard’s widely publicized decision to move to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s assisted suicide law. On the one hand, I find the notion of terminally-ill people having the option of choosing when to die and the assistance of medical professionals appealing. On the other hand, making such a decision public in the interest of bringing attention to the death-with-dignity movement seems, well, less than dignified. End of life issues are deeply personal and gut-wrenching.
Part of my concern with the whole movement and the debate is how it is couched in term of individual rights and dignity. Many of those in favor of assisted suicide or death with dignity say things like, “I don’t want to be a burden to my family” or this (from Sarah Kliff):
Eric Holland, a brain cancer specialist at the University of Washington, calls glioblastoma multiforme “the terminator” of cancers. “It’s like the movie where there is this a killer that you can’t stop, no matter what you do,” he says.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days reading about what it’s like to die from glioblastoma multiforme. Median survival for patients is 14.6 months. Death often happens with little dignity. There’s an essay that Stacey Burling, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, wrote in 2011 about her husband’s death, that I can’t get out of my mind. She describes the cognitive decline as “Alzheimer’s on steroids”:
He mistook the kitchen trash can for a toilet. He couldn’t figure out how to use a phone. I had to pull him with both hands through unfamiliar buildings because he could no longer walk normally or navigate. I bought Depends, just in case. Two days after we started using them, he asked, “What do you figure our last name is?”
Candace Mondello, who lost her brother Kim to the same tumor, describes the experience similarly. “Kim lost his ability to walk, talk, feed himself or use the bathroom,” she wrote in a 2012 essay. “He lost all dignity at this point. He had to be fed, wear diapers and was bed-ridden.”
Yes, it’s a horrific disease and if I were suffering from it I would likely want to end my life as well. Still, as I read these paragraphs, our baptismal vow came to mind: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
What is “dignity”? Well, the word comes from the Latin word dignus, which can be translated as “value” or “worth.” We are tempted to see ourselves in purely instrumental terms. Our value or worth is tied up in what we have or what we do, not who we are, God’s beloved children. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby emphasized the potential of the proposed assisted dying law in the UK on the elderly and disabled.
No doubt, I’m in a shrinking minority in my church, but I fear for our culture if “death with dignity” is embraced. More importantly, I think we are called as Christians to be present in the midst of suffering; to be present with those who suffer, and to witness to the dignity of all human beings in the midst of their suffering.
Jason Welle, SJ wrote powerfully about his brother’s death (I linked to it earlier):
But his dying was never without dignity. I asked Tony to let us love him through his sufferings, and we were able to love him all the way through to the end. And in letting us do that, he showed us courage and heroism, and embodied real dignity. Tony’s journey through his own illness, suffering and death was nothing short of courageous; but that he did all this and cared for my dad in his illness and death is simply heroic. Courage and heroism aren’t born in complacency or contentment, nor are they the hallmarks of fearlessness and ordinary strength. They are created in response to trials and suffering, and they’re evidence of the triumph of hope over despair. Dignity too is made possible through courage and heroism, but love makes all of these possible; love in time of affliction is the condition that makes dignity a reality.
No, dignity isn’t opposed to suffering; sometimes in suffering dignity reveals its truest face.
Yes, it’s gut-wrenching, but as gut-wrenching issues usually are, there are hard questions and strong arguments on all sides.