Brittany Maynard, the beautiful, 29-year-old woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, took her own life Nov. 1 to avoid the suffering that likely would have come with the debilitating progression of her disease. She leaves behind parents, a husband of two years and dreams of a life that didn’t go as planned. Her story indeed is tragic, and most of us will never be able to fully comprehend the emotional and physical pain that she endured.
We do know, however, that Maynard spent the last month of her life as an advocate for the “death with dignity” movement and a spokeswoman for the right-to-die organization Compassion & Choices. Her advocacy launched a national debate on physician-assisted suicide, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Jack Kevorkian in the 1990s. She became the new face of personal freedom — hailed for making a difficult decision that worked for her.
The truth, though, is that there is a better way: the way of the Church and the way of the cross. For a different perspective, we need look no further than Philip Johnson, a seminarian with the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, who also is terminally ill. Johnson, who candidly admits his own struggles, wrote to Maynard: “Suffering is not worthless, and our lives are not our own to take. As humans we are relational — we relate to one another and the actions of one person affects others. Sadly, the concept of ‘redemptive suffering’ — that human suffering united to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross for our salvation can benefit others — has often been ignored or lost in modern times.”
Americans are increasingly likely to see death as the answer — this is how Maynard’s story has reframed
the issue for young voters.
Johnson’s statement underscores the fact that any end-of-life decision ultimately impacts the common good, and to recognize the communal value of suffering animates this perspective. Less noticed is that Maynard’s individualistic approach ultimately isolates people, making them more — not less — vulnerable to pressure from family, doctors or the government not to be a drain on resources or time.
Maynard’s decision to kill herself has all but solidified end-of-life issues as the next major medical, ethical and religious debate in the United States. Americans currently are divided on whether or not they are in favor of doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients (47 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed), but those even numbers won’t last. Right now, only four states currently allow physician-assisted suicide, but that number, too, likely will grow, as Americans increasingly see death as the answer. This is how Maynard’s story has reframed the issue for young voters.
Joining abortion and same-sex marriage, the Church is staring down the barrel of yet another major culture war. But rather than finding ourselves at the top of the euthanasia-paved slippery slope, we’re halfway down it. To see what’s coming around the bend, all we have to do is look at Europe, where, in some countries, physician-assisted suicide is legal (and celebrated) whether one is terminally ill or not.
Euthanasia is well on its way to becoming another feather in the cap of the secular humanist who believes human reason, not God, is the basis of morality and decision-making. Yet for those who champion this “freedom,” it’s worth considering how quickly what begins as a perceived kindness or choice can morph into an obligation and duty. The Church must take pains now to instruct young people on this issue before stories like Maynard’s are so common that they are no longer newsworthy.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor