Death with Dignity

I’m very sorry to hear that Brittany Maynard ended her life Saturday. My sincere condolences to her husband, family, and friends.

Brittany literally became the cover girl for doctor-assisted suicide when she went public with her decision and was on the cover of People magazine. She was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor and chose to end her life at her own timing rather than die of the disease. This is called death with dignity.

There has been criticism for those who have publicly disagreed with her decision. But Brittany went public in order to spark a change in public policy, so it’s in the public square for discussion.

“Death with dignity” is a phrase that suicide proponents have used. Of course, there’s rhetorical power to the phrase to identify it with suicide, bypassing the difficulty and suffering of dying naturally. But dignity has nothing to do with the mode of death, but the way someone handles dying. There’s nothing at all undignified about needing the care of others when we can no longer care for ourselves. There’s nothing undignified about a difficult death. Dignity is a virtue of how the person handles the very difficult circumstances they find themselves in.

I’ve become more personally acquainted with suffering and dying. For the last year my mother’s heart conditions have worsened. She’s become incapacitated and needs care for virtually every need she has. She’s bedridden and her memory is worsening. It’s nothing very unusual for someone nearly 90. She’s slowly dying. It’s very difficult for her and there have been times she’s yearned for it to end. But my mother has accepted every degradation in her condition with grace. She’ll die of natural causes. She is dying with dignity.

My mother often says she never imagined she’d be like this. She would rather die than linger like this. I can’t imagine how hard it is to be in her situation. And I know there are families dealing with much, much worse.

It isn’t pointless.

There’s a community aspect to anyone’s death. Each person’s death and how we handle it either communicates the intrinsic value of human life or the lack of it. It speaks of our value for those virtues or says they’re unimportant. It tells everyone that life is precious and not ours to take, or it says that we are our gods and personal autonomy is paramount.

Brittany Maynard went public because she wanted her death to tell us what she thought about suffering and dying. We need to think carefully about what she told us because it has consequences for all of us and how we treat the suffering and dying, the very vulnerable. My mom’s dying process also tells us something. And I hope that it teaches us that we aren’t the masters of our fate. That life is precious and valuable even when it’s extremely difficult and painful. That we need to care for the sick and dying with patience and compassion. And that there is dignity in the way we accept dying by natural means even when it’s very, very hard. In caring for the sick and dying, we affirm the value of every person by treating them humanely through sickness until death.

Obviously, there are worldview issues involved in this. If you don’t believe in an afterlife, the virtues gained during the end of life aren’t very valuable. If you don’t believe that we are God’s creatures and He gives us life and value, then we are the masters to exercise autonomy over our fate. The value – or lack of it – we put on life at the worst moments in life and death will have consequences for how we treat people at any point in life. This will have consequences for how we as a society provide for the suffering and dying. It will have consequences for the kind of people we are. 

These are the issues that need to be part of the public discourse. 

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Melinda Penner

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