The Death-with-Dignity Debate

by Elizabeth Riese

She had her whole life before her. Still in her twenties and newly married, the possibilities for her future were wide open.

Brittany Maynard

That is until last spring, when Brittany Maynard was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and told by doctors she had six months to live. Helpless. Hopeless. The end of her life was within view.

On November 1, 2014, Maynard chose to end her life in Portland, Ore., making use of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. This legislation “allows terminally-ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose.”

There has been a lot of debate about the “right-to-die” or “death with dignity” movement. Although Maynard’s is perhaps the most well-known case, a quick Google search reveals that there is no shortage of controversial stories revolving around the issue.

Charlotte Fitzmaurice with her daughter, Nancy

Take Nancy Fitzmaurice, for instance. The 12-year-old girl’s mother, Charlotte Fitzmaurice, stood before a judge at court in the UK in August 2014 to beg for the ability to end her child’s life. Born with hydrocephalus, meningitis, and septicemia, she couldn’t walk, speak, eat, or see and, according to her mother, had the developmental age of a six-month-old. At the age of 10, Nancy developed a post-surgical infection that led to immense pain and suffering, unrelieved by morphine or other strong pain medications. Every day for the next two years was a painful battle, and Fitzmaurice often watched her daughter writhe in agony and scream for hours at a time, unable to do anything to help her.

“It was heartbreaking to watch her in so much pain,” Fitzmaurice explained. The court ruled in the mother’s favor, allowing her to end Nancy’s life by withdrawing hydration and nutrition.

Although many can relate to the agony of seeing a loved one in pain, some fear the ramifications that increased normalization of physician-assisted deaths will have in the long run. Anne Penniston Grunsted, a self-proclaimed battler of depression and anxiety and the mother of a child with Down syndrome, is worried that the death with dignity movement will lead society to devalue disabled individuals.

Grunsted uses the example of the rhetoric which is often used in the feminist pro-choice movement. The movement, she says, “often tells stories of women who are carrying disabled children and of course want an abortion and of course must have access to that right.” It troubles Grunsted that society is so accepting of this argument, and she worries that “the voices of the disability community” will soon be snuffed out.

“I am outraged at Nancy’s death,” Grunsted writes. “[I]t happened in a developed country just weeks before Brittany Maynard took a pill to end her own life. Brittany had a voice. Nancy did not.”

Grunsted is not the only one concerned about the implications of the death with dignity movement. The second-most read article on Medical Daily’s website is “The Social Implications Of ‘Dying With Dignity’” by Lecia Bushak. Describing a panel that recently took place in New York City to discuss the meaning of the word “dignity,” Bushak acknowledges that there are varying opinions of the term, adding a further layer of controversy to this already complicated issue.

“Dying with dignity, in Brittany Maynard’s mind,” writes Bushak, “implies that taking control of her situation and dying on her own terms is the best possible solution to her diagnosis… But to the physicians arguing against the law [to legalize physician-assisted suicide], dignity meant embracing the fact that life’s value wasn’t only found in beauty, youth, and independence… Life itself was dignity.”

The concept of the dignity of living rings true for Nadin Naumann. She relates in an article that her mother is currently fighting the same type of brain cancer that Brittany Maynard had before she ended her life. Naumann’s mother was told she had at best 15 months to live, yet 21 months later she is still fighting and making the most of the time she has left with her family. Naumann acknowledges the difficulty of seeing her mother suffer, yet firmly states, “that’s still not comparable to not having her here at all.”

For many there is no question that Maynard’s choice to take her life was justified. Benjamin L. Corey compares Maynard’s death to the individuals who chose to jump from the Twin Towers on 9/11 rather than die in a building that was being consumed by smoke and flames. Corey chides his fellow Christians who have condemned Maynard’s actions, arguing, “Brittany didn’t have a choice in dying, she only had a choice in how she died.” Maynard was trapped in her own metaphorical burning building, and like many of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she chose “a quicker, less painful fate.”

Lisa Miller of New York magazine put it bluntly and succinctly when she wrote, “[L]ife and death are unfair, disgusting, and heartbreaking sometimes, and there’s nothing at all to be done about that.” Miller calls into question the logic behind the widespread support Maynard received for her decision to end her life, arguing that this “knee-jerk reverence…allows us to dwell on the tragic injustice of untimely death while evading the grosser realities of death itself.”

Miller makes another thought-provoking argument when she asks her readers, “[W]hen did we first begin treating suicides in the face of terminal illness as heroic acts while viewing suicides facing other sorts of distress as essentially cowardly?” This question brings to mind the controversy that occurred not many months ago when comedian Robin Williams chose to take his life after years of battling depression and addictions. Many labeled Williams’ suicide as an act of selfishness, while others used the tragic event as an opportunity to raise awareness about mental health issues and misconceptions that are often attached to that subject.

hand reach help_820569

Photo by Feng Yu / Shutterstock.com

Whatever your opinion of Williams’ and Maynard’s deaths, there is no denying the feeling of helplessness that seems to permeate both stories. One individual faced a crippling depression, the other a terminal disease. For both there was no end in sight but death, and so they took matters into their own hands.

Yet not all have lost hope. Philip Johnson, a Catholic seminarian, was diagnosed with incurable Grade III brain cancer in 2008. Upon hearing about Maynard’s preparations to end her life, Johnson—a self-proclaimed introvert who has kept silent about his disease in the past—chose to speak out about what he sees as Maynard’s attempt “to grasp at an ounce of control in the midst of turmoil.”

In a blog posted in October on the website for the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, Johnson acknowledges the pain and depression he has experienced in the six years since his diagnosis, admitting that often he has wished for either a miracle or for the cancer to end his life quickly. Yet in the blog, he describes the surprising reality of the fruit that can often come from tragic circumstances.

“I have experienced countless miracles in places where I never expected to find them,” he writes. “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. Perhaps this is the most important miracle that God intends for me to experience.”

Elizabeth Riese is a communication arts and writing student at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon.

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