Brittany Maynard and the Right to Die

Brittany Maynard and the Right to Die November 10, 2014

Brittany Maynard died this month. Diagnosed with brain cancer on New Year’s Day, at the age of 29, she opted for surgery, but the cancer returned and became even more aggressive. Deciding that radiation or chemotherapy was only delaying the inevitable and would destroy the quality of her life in what time she had left, she decided to forego further treatment and spent her last few months traveling, checking off all the places on her bucket list, before finally choosing to end her life under Oregon’s death-with-dignity law when her symptoms became too much to bear. She died on November 1, just short of her 30th birthday.

This story hit me harder than most, probably because of the closeness of our ages. I’m 32 years old, and I can imagine what it would feel like to be told I was terminally ill – to have the prospect of decades of life and happiness suddenly ripped away, when there’s still so much I want to do and see. I realize this is a human prejudice and that nature doesn’t recognize these distinctions, but it seems more natural that a person should die much later, in their old age: like Edward and Joan Downes, who died voluntarily, hand-in-hand, after a long and happy life and fifty-four years of marriage. That seems to me like a fitting culmination, whereas a person dying so young feels like an injustice.

It may be for that same reason that Maynard’s decision to die sparked so much controversy – even anger – among the religious. Witness this vitriolic comment thread:

And it wasn’t just anonymous commenters on the internet. Even a Vatican spokesman lashed out at her decision, calling it “reprehensible”. As I said on Twitter, it’s strange that religious people would greet this news with anger, rather than sorrow. Unless, that is, they’re aware that Maynard’s story makes the case for a right to die in a sympathetic and understandable way that they can’t refute.

In all the Christian commentary on Maynard, there’s an argument that appears disturbingly often: that choosing to die is wrong because pain and suffering is good and beautiful, and if God is causing it to happen, there must be a good reason for it. For example, take this essay by Kara Tippetts, a 36-year-old Christian mother herself afflicted with terminal metastatic cancer, that ineffectively urged Maynard not to end her life:

Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known.

…You have been told a lie. A horrible lie, that your dying will not be beautiful. That the suffering will be too great… Yes, your dying will be hard, but it will not be without beauty.

And then there’s this:

The underlying aspect of “Death with Dignity” hangs on pride. It is a refusal to accept a state where one will need in humility to depend on others. Ultimately, it is also a refusal to enter into the suffering of the Cross and submit to God’s will and accept the redemptive value that suffering can offer for one’s salvation and spiritual perfection.

Whether spit out with judgment and condemnation, as in the latter quote, or smothered in cloying compassion, as in the former, this sentiment is equally grotesque – the viewpoint of a torturer who’s convinced himself he’s acting for his victims’ own good. Taken to its logical conclusion, this should lead to forsaking all medical care so that the “beauty” of suffering can be fully embraced, although few Christians seem to recognize this implication of their argument.

To be clear, I’m not telling anyone with a terminal illness what they should or shouldn’t do. If a person is suffering too much to bear and wants to end their life painlessly, that should be their choice. If they want to fight on and avail themselves of medical science for as long as possible, that should be their choice as well. If they want to forsake medicine and rely only on prayer, even that should be their choice. Human autonomy is paramount and should always be respected.

But the suffering-is-beautiful faction doesn’t feel the same way. They want to make their view binding law, to force everyone to suffer whether they wish to or not. In the U.K., for instance, religious groups (including the bishops who still get guaranteed seats in the House of Lords) are trying to block an assisted-dying bill under consideration in Parliament. An explicitly Christian charity, CARE, that opposes the bill has asked people who write to their legislators to disguise their true motives: “Please do not express your opposition to the bill using faith-based or ‘religious'” arguments.

In the long run, this is another battle that religion can’t win. There’s no one whose life hasn’t been touched by death, and I think all of us, even the young and healthy, can imagine one day being terminally ill and being denied the right to take control of our dying and end things on our own terms. The idea of forcibly prolonging a person’s life, dragging out their suffering as long as possible, strikes any normal person as outrageous sadism, as well it should. And that probably answers my question, why religious spokespeople are so angrily defensive about this story: it’s the cognitive dissonance of knowing, whether they admit it or not, that they’re standing on the wrong side.

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