“I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel.” This phrase is from the original Hippocratic Oath. At what point among humanity, then, did it become acceptable to play God and decide when life no longer had value? When did it become appropriate to comply with the request of a sick patient to provide a suicide pill?
“The subtle pressures to go along – to avoid costly treatments – can easily lead to acquiescence, especially if the patient is confused. Believe me, we may say anything under the influence of pain or morphine or in the isolation of an ICU,” states Ben Mattlin, author of Miracle Boy Grows Up.
Euthanasia has been a huge topic lately due to the terminal diagnosis of 29 year old Brittany Maynard, who uprooted her life from California to Oregon where death by doctor-assisted suicide is a legal, acceptable, and common practice. She stated that she wanted to die on her own terms with dignity. Many people proclaim her as brave to make such a decision. All I see is fear. Fear to die. Fear to face the unknown.
I cannot speak from a place of compassion as one who knows what it’s like to walk in her shoes. Rather, my compassion for her situation lends more to a desire that she could find value, even in her suffering. There are some people, however, who know exactly what Brittany is experiencing, and have made public statements in the form of letters to Brittany. They’ve chosen to accept their prognosis with true dignity, finding value in every day as it comes, each one a precious gift.
Philip Johnson was diagnosed with a terminal type of brain cancer that is inoperable – very similar to Brittany’s cancer. He was not expected to live more than 18 months. That was six years ago. He admits that there are difficult days where he experiences seizures and headaches, even to the point of wishing the cancer would hurry up and finish its course.
His initial reaction to having cancer was one of hope for a miraculous recovery. Who wouldn’t feel that way in his position? Nobody asks for or wants to end their life in magnificent suffering. However, he has come to realize that “a miracle doesn’t necessarily mean an instant cure.” He has already outlived his initial prognosis, and says he has experienced countless miracles in places where he never expected to find them.
“I have had the great opportunity to serve the infirm who trust in God with their whole hearts to make sense of their suffering. Through my interaction with these people, I received much more than I gave,” said Johnson. “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 God intends for me to experience.”
Johnson has chosen to look beyond the suffering, and has found value in living each day, as he is able, to its fullest. The same is true with Kara Tippetts. She was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago at the age of 36 and has four young children. The battle wages on in her body, having crossed the blood/brain barrier, and metastasized throughout her body. Images cover her website with chemo treatments, baldness, and hugs with her family.
Tippett grieves over Maynard’s choice and can’t seem to get it out of her mind. She discusses it with her friends and her oncologist, and prays for her with her young children. In her letter she pleads with Brittany, “Your life matters. Your story matters. Your suffering matters.” Even though the two have never met, she states, “Brittany, I love you… I am sorry that we are both being asked to walk a road that feels impossible to walk.”
“Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known,” says Tippett. By consciously deciding to control when to die, Brittany is robbing her family of experiencing the value that can be seen through every new and unexpected day.
Thinking about her daughter, Tippett reflects, “…one day the story of my young daughter will be made beautiful in her living because she witnessed my dying. That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath matters – but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed.” She continues, “When we trust Jesus to be the carrier, protector and redeemer of our hearts, death is no longer dying. My heart longs for you to know this truth, this love, this forever living.”
I use these quotes because they mirror my own thoughts and beliefs, but Johnson and Tippett can speak from the same place as Maynard. Life has value, and if euthanasia ever becomes widely legalized in the United States, what would it lead to? Wouldn’t the line of who qualifies for doctor-assisted suicide continue to be pushed from cause to cause?
Already there have been cases in Oregon where insurance companies refused further payment for chemotherapy, but offered to pay for the suicide pill. Already there have been instances where non-terminally ill patients with severe but treatable depression have been able to doctor-shop until they found one who would let them die. Where does the line get drawn to ensure that it won’t become common practice for doctors to kill their patients in place of capable treatment?
In Belgium, where doctor-assisted suicide has been legal since 2002, an elderly couple has the support of their three adult children in choosing to die on their 64th wedding anniversary next February. What drives them to make such a choice, even though neither is terminally ill? Fear. They are both afraid of facing life without the other. “We want to go together because we both fear the future,” explained Francis, the husband in the world’s first couple euthanasia.
Belgium is a country where an average of five people die every day by lethal injection, even though not all of them are terminally ill. In 2012, twins Eddy and Marc, both deaf, learned they would most likely become blind as well, and elected to die at the young age of 45. Mental anguish, now a justifiable reason for euthanasia, was the reasoning for Nancy Verhelst to choose death after a botched sex change operation.
Liz Carr, an actress for BBC, stated that “the casual practice of euthanasia in Belgium had developed from a law designed initially for hard cases.” In her belief, “once you allow a doctor to assist you to end your life when the patient defines when they are suffering, I think you are opening the door to an extension of that law.”
“It may be everyone’s intention that initially it will be only for a small group of people, but how you monitor that and how you enforce that is practically impossible.” Liz concluded, “It is terrifying where this could go.” Given the many examples above, I couldn’t agree more.
In the case of Brittany Maynard, a few days before November 1st she made a statement that she was re-considering ending her life when originally planned, stating that she still had more of her life to live. Perhaps it was a stunt to throw media off her scent so she could die in peace. Maybe she really was reconsidering her decision. Whatever the reason for making that statement, I am sad to report that Maynard did end up taking her life on Saturday, November 1, 2014, using a pill prescribed by her Oregon physician.