29-year-old terminally ill Brittany Maynard is bringing massive national attention to the issue of our right to choose when we die in the face of imminent death. When she found out her short life was going to end very soon, and very painfully, this spring, she uprooted her life with her new husband in California to moved to Oregon where she could choose exactly when she dies instead of waiting for her disease to take her. She originally planned to die Saturday, but chose not to because she’s still enjoying her life. “I still feel good enough and I still have enough joy and I still laugh and smile with my family and friends enough that it doesn’t seem like the right time right now,” she said in a new six-minute video on her website.
To me, at least, it seems like an incredibly brave and wise decision to be prepared to hasten your death when you’re struck by a horrific illness that will cause inevitable suffering, but the debate over the ethics of this is fierce and emotionally charged. Right now there are only three states that allow the right to make this decision legally. Of course, anyone could find a way to kill themselves, but the means to do it pleasantly, legally, and without any unnecessary suffering, is more difficult. In Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, mentally-competent, terminally ill adults are allowed to obtain a prescription for fatal barbiturates. Usually surrounded by friends and family when they decide to take their cocktail, the patient experiences a pleasant narcotic euphoria before slipping into a coma they won’t wake up from.
“I will die upstairs in my bedroom that I share with husband with my mother and my husband by my side, and pass peacefully with some music that I like in the background,” Brittany said of her plan in the original video she made to both tell her story and advocate for wider Death with Dignity laws.
“Suffering is not worthless, and our lives are not our own to take,” writes Philip Johnson, a 30-year-old Catholic seminarian who has been living with terminal brain cancer for six years. He says he was only given 18 months to live when he was diagnosed. “I learned that the suffering and heartache that is part of the human condition does not have to be wasted and cut short out of fear or seeking control in a seemingly uncontrollable situation,” he says. There is great wisdom to this statement, but it’s troubling to me that he attributes his remarkable survival so far to prayer, specifically to the amount of people praying for him. Personal prayer and meditation has been proven to relieve stress and sometimes aid in healing (because prayer, meditation, and quiet reflection calms us down, making the body better able to repair itself when self-repair is still possible,) but there is no evidence that the amount of people praying for a person improves the outcome of their health, and it’s a bit of a slap in the face to people who are prayed for, but don’t survive. Focusing on the amount of people praying also turns chances of faith-engineered survival into a strange popularity contest.
Philip Johnson and I have a fundamental disagreement, though. I do think that suffering is not worthless (though what Philip and I mean by “worth” are probably different things since he is coming from a theological standpoint, and I am not,) but I also think our lives are our own to take, especially in these circumstances. People who chose death with dignity are not suicidal. They do not want to die, but they are faced with death, and all they are asking for is a modicum of control over how that death occurs. We have very little control over anything, and honestly expecting control is a folly, but sometimes we do have some very real choices to make.
There is much wisdom to be gained from suffering, and from using our own suffering to connect with others, and assuage their suffering. But at some point, the body breaks down to a point where there is nothing to be gained from the pain, where maybe the compassionate thing to do is to let go. This is an extreme circumstance though, in my opinion. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly. It’s not a solution to depression, or even some of the most devastating and painful chronic illnesses. Learning to live with varying degrees of emotional and physical pain is something we all face, and accepting the presence of pain in our lives is probably necessary to finding some degree of peace.
A few years ago I saw Peter Richardson’s documentary How to Die in Oregon, which is currently streaming on both Netflix and Amazon. The film shows several viewpoints about the right to die, but the story of cancer-ridden Cody Curtis struck me to the core. This vibrant 54-year-old woman was being ravaged by a cancer of the bile duct, and the complicated beauty of her fragile life is overwhelming to me. I still think of Cody often, in flashes. She is a reminder to enjoy my life, my health, while I have it. She also made me seriously consider what I would do if faced with her situation. I decided then that I would rather have that option, that I would squeeze everything out of life that I could, and then have a relief available when things truly started to fall apart.
The concept of choosing when to die when faced with serious suffering can be comforting, but the decision cuts deep and sharp as the days approach. How to Die in Oregon followed Cody as she qualified and weighed her days, something that Brittany Maynard is now doing. Cody’s health declined significantly on camera, but she still found pleasure in life, still enjoyed living it. The days seem so abundant for most of us, but for the terminally ill, they are beyond precious. The present ravages on, unconcerned with disease and decay. The choice of death is always there for those who choose to die with dignity, but in this moment there is still life.
The time did come for Cody when the joy did not outweigh the suffering, and she gathered her family and friends around her and slipped away. “This is so easy,” she said as the drugs relaxed her. Her last words were “thank you.”
Brittany is so young, three years younger than me. Reflecting on it, I feel lucky to have been given three more years than her already, and feel humbling by how many more years I may live beyond that. Thinking about time too much, though, drives us mad and breaks our heart. We count days, hours, seconds, we see people and things age, we experience memories and project into the future, but we tend to think time is something it’s not. For all of this, there is just this flickering moment.
UPDATE: Brittany Maynard ended her life Nov. 1, 2014, as planned. Her health had been deteriorating rapidly, and she had been experiencing more frequent and debilitating seizures.
Her obituary ends with this quote from Brittany:
“It is people who pause to appreciate life and give thanks who are happiest. If we change our thoughts, we change our world! Love and peace to you all.”