“You know what, it’s not your life, it’s life. Life is bigger than you, if you can imagine that. Life isn’t something that you possess, it’s something that you take part in and witness.”
― Louis C.K.
It was a striking coincident that, just before the Brittany Maynard “Right to Die” storyline unfolded in the public forum, my wife and I had watched “How to Die in Oregon,” a documentary about the very same “Death with Dignity” Law at the heart of Maynard’s decision to end her own life. So it was a subject that was fresh in my mind when this meme, which reemerges in general conversation on a somewhat regular basis, caught fire once again. It’s also particularly salient to me, given that Brittany’s life ended not far from where I am typing this.
There are a number of reasons, I think, that this particular case took hold of our imaginations. First, the woman at the heart of the story was very attractive, and she also was a startlingly young 29 years old: not exactly the archetypal subject of an end-of-life discussion. Some may struggle with the option one may exercise to end their own life, regardless of the person’s age. But the fact that, from the outside looking in, Brittany Maynard was far too young to be dealing with death hits too close to home for the rest of us. It raises the question we all think of, and yet few of us express out loud:
If death can take her, it can take me too.
So for that alone, we’d just as soon have the whole subject swept back into the darker corners of our lives, where we can try to pretend it’s not always there, commanding at least a little bit of our attention, informing more of our daily lives than we care to admit.
Aside from this grim reality, there are moral issues at stake, over which people are obviously sharply divided. On the one hand, people claim that it should be a person’s right to die when and how they choose, at least when they have some physiological/medial basis for their quality of life dramatically and irreparably deteriorating. And then there are others who, under no circumstances, would ever embrace one’s right to “play God” with human life.
And yet those same people have been notably silent when we “play God” in bringing people back from clinical death. We also “play God” with other peoples’ lives when we send them off to fight wars on our behalf, which they may or may not understand. And who among us who is a parent hasn’t “played God” in participating in the miraculous creation of life? So in all honesty, it’s not so much about whether or not we can play God; it’s about how and when it’s acceptable to do it.On this point, I think most of us can agree. After all, I have heard no advocates in any legitimately moderated public discussion call for a “suicide free-for-all,” in which people should be welcome to acquire lethal doses of medicine from their physician, simply because they’re having a run of bad luck or because they are depressed. What it seems to come down to for most people is whether there is a greater good at stake, and if so, how we assess if the loss is outweighed by the benefits.
In case this feels to trite or clinical, consider the reference to war above. In a typical context, anyone would tend to agree that a teenager putting themselves into harm’s way, in which death was all but inevitable, would be tragically wrong. However, if you put a military uniform on that same teenager, and hinge the life or welfare of his fellow soldiers on his decision to throw himself on a land mine, and the suicidal boy becomes a hero. so most certainly, we can find situation in our world in which someone’s choice to end their life isn’t just acceptable; it’s commendable.
So if someone is living with a terminal disease, one that is racking their body with suffering and prolonging their family’s grief and ability to get on with life – never mind the thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of dollars saved by not artificially supporting a life bound to end the same way anyway – why are we so ready to levy such an absolute condemnation of the decision from arms-length?
For Christians, consider the case of Jesus, willingly riding into Jerusalem to face the judgment of those who sought to execute him. It was, for all intents and purposes, a suicide mission. He knew precisely what he was facing, and despite the pleas of his fellow followers and loved ones to avoid such a fate, he decided to face, and even embrace, his own death. Independent of our understanding of why Jesus felt he had to die, I think we can agree that he could have chosen to go into hiding or travel elsewhere, much as his parents chose to do when King Herod engaged in his infamous Slaughter of the Innocents.
But would any among us accuse Jesus of empire-assisted suicide? In fact, countless Christians hang the entirety of their faith on his decision to do so, of his own free will. Was Jesus within his human right to willingly end his own life? The answer to that, I expect, lies in the sense each of us has of whether there was a greater good at stake.