Death with Dignity

Author Greg Koukl Published on 11/17/2014

If you do have rights of any kind you need to offer a worldview in which rights claims have traction.

A young and attractive newlywed was facing imminent death due to brain cancer. Her name was Brittany Maynard. She was 29-years-old and married just over a year. There was no way to stop the growth of the tumor. Anticipating her imminent death, she decided to take matters into her own hands and die on her own schedule.

She didn’t want to waste away in a hospice. She wasn’t confident the drugs meant to minimize pain would be adequate to take the pain away. She was committed to the concept of “death with dignity.”

“Death with dignity” distorts the truth as if those who let nature take its course are not dying with dignity. Why does dignity depend on whether or not you’re in pain? The world is filled with people in pain who can still comport themselves with dignity.

The euphemism is a put down to those who suffer. Suffering can be ugly and impossible to stomach for those who are watching it. It can be described in all sorts of ways, but suffering is not undignified.

Brittany Maynard said she was not suicidal. However, she arranged to take medication to end her life. It seems that suicidal was a word properly applied. She was calmly suicidal. The euphemism dignifies suicide.

The People headline read: “My Right to Death with Dignity.” Worldviews were in play in this situation. Though people in the West resonate with “my right to do what I want with my own body,” it would be healthy for us to ask some foundational questions.

What makes you think that you have a right to what happens to your own body? A lot of people hear that and are dumbstruck. Isn’t it obvious what gives you the right to your own body? A right is a morally justified claim to something.

I gave a talk a number of years ago to the Christian legal society at the University of Southern California. The talk I gave was on relativism. There was a young lady studying law that came up to me afterwards.

She said, “I am an atheist and an animal rights activist.”

I said to her, “I think you’re going to have a difficult time making sense of the phrase that you just offered me.”

She said, “Why? I think animals have a right not to suffer.”

I said, “I think I have a right to half of your income for my organization,” then I said, “Tell me what the difference is between our two claims? You made an assertion, and I made an assertion. What makes your claim any more legitimate than my claim on your worldview?”

In a world without ultimate purpose, where does one get the idea that anyone or anything has a right to anything at all? In a universe where there is no god to underscore moral claims and nothing non-material exists anyway, how are you going to get the moral obligation of an immaterial abstract right?

In order for a rights claim to be coherent, it must affirm a world where immaterial moral obligations exist. You need a moral lawmaker who underscores the moral laws you are making. If somebody writes an article “My Right to Death with Dignity” at 29, I ask the question: What makes you think you have any rights at all? You can only have rights in a moral universe governed by God who gives those rights uniquely to human beings.

Our founders argued, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.... Each is endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

It doesn’t say “right to death” but “right to life.” Someone might want to press the word happiness, but they didn’t mean happiness the way one may think. They meant the good, full, rich life as it aught to be lived by a human being. That isn’t a life that pursues one’s own death.

If you have a right to life, it’s only because God has given you the right to life. In God’s eyes, is it legitimate for one to deprive themselves of their own right to life? The Ten Commandments say, “Thou shall not murder.” It is wrong to take a life without proper justification. Human beings were made really special. We already know this without the Bible, but the Bible tells us that we bear God’s mark.

The Bible doesn’t make the distinction between taking one’s own life and taking another life. It simply points out that innocent human life ought not be taken because human life bears God’s image. When you take a life, you destroy an image bearer. That’s true even if you take your own life.

I have no idea what it must be like to suffer physically in profound ways, and I do not look forward to it. The question isn’t whether we can understand the desire to take one’s own life. The question is whether it’s right and whether we should champion such a thing.

Additionally, there are ramifications of such choices in society at large. In Europe, so-called “death with dignity” statutes have been in place for a long time. Sometimes, people who want to stick around for a while end up losing their lives. The way human life is viewed changes within a culture when law justifies death. It communicates that human life is not the valuable thing, but rather the quality of life.

If there is no god, you don’t have a right to anything. You can get away with certain things, and you might have the power to accomplish things, but that’s a power deal, not a rights deal. If you do have rights of any kind you need to offer a worldview in which rights claims have traction.

There are obvious human rights. The right to die is not one of them. Taking one’s own life is not death with dignity. It’s undignified to kill yourself.

If there is no god, then you don’t have rights. If you do have rights, then there needs to be a god, and maybe this god has something to say about the limits of those rights. Maybe it isn’t your life at all. Maybe you owe something to God. Maybe you owe something to your community.

Brittany Maynard purposed to die in such a way that she could say goodbye to her community. There are legions of people that die having said goodbye to their community without dying at their own hand. They pass with those who they love all around them. They say their goodbyes, and they move on to the next life. Maybe not as peacefully as chemical suicide would allow, but chemical suicide is not dignified, its just suicide. It’s quiet, painless, and undignified.

When people exercise this legal liberty, their intention is to end the suffering. Regardless of which side of the theological divide you find yourself, the suffering for many people does not end at death but increases at death. If there is a god who judges our lives and finds us wanting, it may be that many people who end their suffering in this life pass on to a greater suffering in the next.