California is Now a “Right to Die” State (and That’s a Good Thing)

California is Now a “Right to Die” State (and That’s a Good Thing) October 6, 2015

After discovering she had brain cancer, Brittany Maynard moved from California to Oregon so that she could die on her own terms, before the disease took her life. Death by brain cancer would surely have been an excruciatingly painful death. With her family’s blessing, she took the ultimate step to cease her suffering–to die gently and mercifully.

CC license, via Flikr
Image by Christopher, CC license, via Flikr

Just yesterday, the state of California adopted the same “right to die with dignity” which had prompted Maynard to move to Oregon.

Governor Brown, who ratified the bill into California law on Monday, said this:

The crux of the matter is whether the state of California should continue to make it a crime for a dying person to end his life,” Brown said, “no matter how great his pain and suffering.

The decision to end one’s suffering is a difficult one. It is rife with controversy; euthanasia legislation is rife with controversy and debate.  While many proponents of euthanasia want to shy away from the word, it does amount to a form of suicide. But people should intuitively realize that physician-assisted-suicidein the face of one’s imminent, inevitable, and painful death is distinct in nature from other forms of suicide. To use philosophical terminology: if it is not qualitatively distinct, it is certainly quantitatively different.

An ABC news article reports on a letter Brown wrote:

In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” wrote the Democratic governor, who has been treated for prostate cancer and melanoma. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill.

The letter also notes that Brown, a lifelong Catholic and former Jesuit seminarian, noted that he “consulted a Catholic bishop, two of his own doctors and friends ‘who take varied, contradictory and nuanced positions.'”

Obviously more research than Brown’s own personal consultations went into this legislation. But in the end, Brown was comfortable with signing the legislation because it gives people facing great suffering a real choice to end it.

It’s not difficult to see why euthanasia is such a fiercely debated issue. We’re dealing here in matters of life and death. Euthanasia makes suicide legal and, while it places the act under the guidance of a regulated process and under the care of physicians, it still seems to strike at the heart of our greatest, most sacred value: life itself. And do we really want to “play God”?

This issue also brings to mind the hard reality that suffering is a deep part of life. Our great spiritual masters, both in the present and in the past, are often those who face into suffering bravely–and who we like to imagine wouldn’t “opt out” if given the chance. It’s true that suffering often opens people into new existential and spiritual depths. Countless people have faced death, with all the pain and suffering it can bring, bravely and nobly–enduring its slings and arrows till the bitter end.

But these masters, teachers, models, and even heroes are that for a reason: they are exceptional. They inspire us, but they do not necessarily require or even invite us to follow them into that deepest darkness. And as Kierkegaard noted, what gives suffering its real spiritual and existential value is that it is voluntary. Those who choose to walk a path of bitter darkness can light up the world for the rest of us.

But we can also be inspired by those who take a different path; those who, in the face of the imminence of great pain suffering, and death, embrace their mortality and accept their ultimate end on their own terms. A gentle and merciful death also has spiritual value. They can be heroes, too.

Let’s be honest here: the great spiritual and theological traditions can tend to glorify suffering. In the context of an often cruel, unjust, and inhumane world we are compelled to interpret suffering as an opportunity for courage; by accepting suffering as a gift, we shake our fists into the void of meaninglessness.

Given this tendency, it seems important to ask, in every particular situation, whether minimizing suffering might not be of more value than maximizing it? Which is better? To shake our fists into the void–fighting till the bitter end–or to relax our hands, resign ourselves to our destiny, and accept it gracefully?

Providing people with terminal illnesses the possibility to alleviate their suffering seems to be the mark of a genuinely humane society. For these sufferers, their inevitable and imminent death is not a choice. So long as protections are built into the system, to prevent the possibility from becoming a Pandora’s box of irresponsibility or injustice, the “right to die” policies give people the option to maximize or minimize their suffering in the face of that inevitability.

This option, it seems to me, is a good thing.

Note: The protections, or conditions, in this bill include: The patient must be able to take the lethal medicine themselves, they must be under the care of two physicians, and there must be two witnesses present at time of death–one of whom is not a relative.

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