Last week, a viral story started making the rounds about a young woman named Brittany Maynard, a 29 year-old newlywed who was diagnosed with brain cancer in January. After an initial diagnosis of having possibly ten years left to live, her doctors later revised the estimation (in light of the severity of her cancer) to six months. Since then, she and her family moved from California to Oregon, in order to legally seek a physician-assisted death. Here’s her story:
This video, which was just posted last week, already has over seven million views on Youtube. Her story is very sad, and I don’t want to come across as condemnatory of her, or as though I can’t understand that there is a lot of difficulty in her situation. My aunt died after having a brain tumor removed, in an attempt to save her life, so I’m no stranger to the way cancer, especially brain cancer, can cause suffering. Whether she ends her life or not, there will be a tremendous amount of pain, and her life will not be the same as it used to be. Aside from her own suffering and pain, though, there is one issue that really disturbs me about this whole scenario.
The use of the language “death with dignity” to describe her decision is baffling and insulting. It is a misunderstanding of death and of dignity. This flippant usage of the phrase ‘death with dignity,’ and the insistence that it is NOT a suicide is really offensive.
Taking one’s own life points to one of the fundamental problems of the modern era: the pathological idea of radical autonomy. In our society, and in any society, NOBODY is autonomous. Nobody is truly on their own, capable of making their own decisions that will impact anybody else but themselves. That’s a lie because we as human beings are created for relationships, for community. In fact, to know ourselves as an I requires a thou; we only become aware of our independence in light of the relationships we form with others.
To be born requires a mother and a father, and to grow requires a family, indeed a whole community. While the parents bear the primary responsibility, it does in many ways take a village to raise any of us, and that’s good. People need other people; we thrive in relationships. The fundamental fall of Adam and Eve destroyed human relationships and poisoned us with the idea that we don’t need them. To flourish, we depend on being in community. The most sacred of those communities is the family. And yet it is that very community which, aside from the person dying, is impacted the most by such a decision.
Brittany’s mother notes that she’s always accomplished anything she’s set her mind to, and in one of the articles she is described as brave for taking her death into her own hands, and on her own terms. To claim that it’s less terrifying or more dignified to choose a date and ingest a lethal medication is just outrageous. To ask friends and family to gather around and just tell them goodbye may well be easier than suffering through pains and other ramifications of brain cancer. But to assert that this choice is somehow a choice of “dignity” is preposterous.
What, after all, gives human life its dignity? Two things: our capacity for rational thought, and our free will, both of which are the necessary preconditions for love. To be human, and thus to have human dignity, means to be capable of love. And love means making a gift of our life. More to the point, to love in the fullest human sense means to realize that everything we have is a gift, and to try and treasure it.
In the video, she speaks about seizing the day, finding out what is important, and holding on to that, while forgetting everything else. Yet she is choosing to let go of those things, to let go of her mother, her father, and even her husband. Her choices seem to point to an understanding of dignity that is based not on our humanity, not on our actual being, but on our utility, or our function. To see dignity as attached to ability is a frightening reality. That is not loving, because it is treating the superabundant gift of life, given to us by God, as something disposable. That choice to end one’s life, however difficult it may be, is not brave.
“I believe this choice is ethical, and what makes it ethical is it is a choice,” she says. “
Ever heard that line before? Choice alone cannot be the reason something is ethical. Choices can be wrong, and this is one that we have to confront.
You want to see what dignity in the face of death looks like? Check out Chiara Luce Badano, a young woman in the prime of life who was struck with cancer. She suffered a long, painful death, avoiding pain medication so she could be lucid. Even in her pain she visited other patients in the hospital and spread joy, right down to her last moments. That transformation of deep human suffering into an occasion of joy is what makes humanity great. Chiara Luce inspired others, even in her suffering, to be joyful, and to see the positive value of suffering as a witness to the dignity of all life.
I ask you to please pray for Brittany and all those who are in a similar position of despair, that they may realize their true dignity and that death is not their only option. You can join many others in a special novena for Brittany by clicking here.