On Saturday, November 1, a young girl committed suicide. Brittany Maynard had been diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, and she was told that chances of beating the cancer were pretty much nil. She suffered from seizures as her disease grew worse, and did not want to suffer anymore. She therefore moved to Oregon where doctor-assisted suicide is legal, and killed herself by taking an overdose of barbiturates. She was twenty-nine.
Her death kicked into overdrive an already active debate about the morality of such suicide. Its proponents, of course, do not call it “suicide.” The movement calls itself the “right-to-die” movement, and the state law under which Brittany killed herself is called the “Death with Dignity Act.” No one who hears Brittany’s story can fail to be moved by her suffering, and the first Christian response must be compassion for her and her family, and prayer. It is a hard and heart-wrenching tale. Nonetheless, as lawyers say, “hard cases make for bad law,” and personal compassion for Brittany and her family should not be allowed to pre-empt our duty to think about the morality of the movement which she championed. We therefore ask: How then should Orthodox Christians regard the right-to-die movement? Is it something we should embrace, or should we regard it as yet another symptom of the creeping secularization of our western society?
Certainly the advances of the right-to-die movement constitute a fundamental shift in how our civilization has regarded suicide. Formerly those who had died by their own hand were not even allowed Christian burial in consecrated ground. Most Orthodox now have rethought that prohibition (one jurisdiction has produced a liturgical rite for use in the case of suicides), but stigma still attaches to the choice. Perhaps that is why Brittany contended that she was not going to commit suicide. In an interview with People Magazine, she said, “For people to argue against this choice for sick people [of ending one’s own life] seems evil to me. They try to mix it up with suicide and that’s really unfair, because there’s not a single part of me that wants to die. But I am dying.”
It is true that Brittany did not want to die. Rather, she wanted to live without cancer. It was only when it became apparent that such an option was not open to her that she chose to kill herself. But this is true of all suicides. Take Robin Williams, for example. I imagine that not a single part of him wanted to die. He simply wanted to live without depression. But when it became apparent to him that such an option was not open to him, he killed himself. No suicide wants to die. They choose suicide because they feel that they have no other option. Living with depression for years became too difficult for Robin; living with advancing seizures for six months became too difficult for Brittany. One can and should have compassion for both of them, but this does not mean that neither committed suicide. If the right-to-die debate is to be fruitfully conducted, both sides must call things by their proper names. This is a debate about the personal morality and cultural wisdom of allowing suicide.
One group in North America has traditionally doubted the wisdom of allowing such doctor-assisted suicide—the disabled, the handicapped, and the elderly. Currently most states do not allow for such legal suicide, but what if the present exception becomes the future rule? What if such suicide becomes normalized and accepted by most people as one way of sensibly dealing with approaching death? Some have warned about stepping into an abyss, for this would have far-reaching impact. Currently our culture regards life as sacred and inviolable, so that no one may kill another person, however old and socially-useless they may appear, and however handicapped they may be. A line has been drawn beyond which we may not go, and we cannot cross that line and kill someone before their time. But if we erase that line and allow the terminally-ill to kill themselves, what about the elderly, as the prolongation of their lives becomes increasingly costly? What about the disabled and handicapped, whose lives are judged to have less social utility than others? Are they next? In our current climate, this is unthinkable, but that is only because the line still largely exists. If the line is erased, the unthinkable will become thinkable very soon—especially as the cost of health care escalates. Nothing personal, grandpa, but keeping you alive is becoming very expensive.
For the Christian, there is another consideration as well. In past ages, everyone accepted that God was the sole Lord of life and death. It was by His will and permission that people lived or died. In the poetic words of the Orthodox prayer uttered at Pentecost Vespers, almighty God was the “Maker of every nature of man, of that which is brought together and again put asunder, of life and of the end of life, of sojourning here and of translation there, the One who measures the years of life and sets the times of death.” In our culture, we now arrogate such lordship to ourselves. By our own will and by our own untrammeled choice, we decide whether a baby in the womb will be born and live or be aborted and die. We decide whether the terminally-ill should be cared for until death overtakes them or be killed with medical assistance. We decide whether someone should be kept on life-support indefinitely or unplugged and left to die.
Some choices of course are easier to make than others, but the cultural fact remains that we now consider that these choices are solely ours to make. As a social-medical expert wrote in the Washington Post, “We are beginning to focus on what patients want, on their right to self-determination. And people are increasingly asking why anyone—the state, the medical profession, religious leaders—would presume to tell someone else that they must continue to die by inches, against their will.” Note: none can interfere with “what patients want” (now labelled “their right to self-determination”). For anyone to tell a patient that they must continue to “die by inches” is denounced as “presumption.” Does this “anyone” include God? The very concept of submission to God’s will has been removed; everything now depends upon the will of the patient, the decision in the moment of the sovereign individual. As Brittany wrote in her Facebook page, “Today is the day I have chosen to pass away in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer which has taken so much from me… but would have taken so much more.”
Note: Brittany passed away on that Saturday because that was the day she chose to pass away. If Brittany’s online video campaign (which she has called “Compassion & Choices”) succeeds, we will become the Lords of life and death. The invisible line protecting the weak (what Hamlet called God’s “canon against self-slaughter”) will have been erased, and all will be entirely dependent upon human wisdom for matters of life and death. There are many, such as the disabled, the handicapped, and the elderly, who regard such a wisdom as far too fragile a foundation to bear such a weighty load. Right now, all eyes are on Brittany, a dear and beautiful young woman afflicted with a terrible disease. But ultimately it is not about Brittany. It is about the dangers to a society when its people arrogate to themselves ultimate moral authority. History provides no support whatsoever for the view that that we can use that authority wisely. With the tragic death of poor Brittany, we take one step closer to the abyss.
Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.