Brittany Maynard, a terminally ill woman who moved from California to Oregon to avail herself of Oregon's Death With Dignity law, has died, according to social media and news accounts.
How we die has been a difficult issue for people of faith. The Roman Catholic Church has long opposed Oregon's law, twice re-affirmed by Oregon voters and a series of court decisions. Roman Catholics are not alone in their discomfort with Death With Dignity.
As a minister in the United Church of Christ, and as a voter in Oregon, I have had to wrestle with this issue in direct ways. My deepest concern when this issue was first debated was that people of limited economic means would feel pressure to commit suicide if the law were enacted. Why burden your family with mounting medical bills and debt if there is a fast and easy way out?
Oregon's law was carefully crafted, however, with many safeguards in place. To start with, two verbal requests must be made to your physician separated by 15 days. A written request must be made. Only those with a documented terminal illness may use the law. A consulting physician, in addition to your own, must certify that you are eligible to use the law. The two physicians must be in agreement that the patient is "capable of making and communicating health care decisions for him/herself," according the Compassion and Choices website.
The majority of people taking advantage of this law are not poor and without means but highly educated and insured, which opens another question: are those without access to education and health care being presented with every humane treatment option available? This is the opposite of my original concern.
The reality is that we cannot always control pain. As a pastor, I have watched some deaths where pain management was ineffective. We have, in recent years, made important strides in pain management but some deaths will be terrible and the reality is that such suffering never has to happen.
Archbishop Alexander Sample of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland recently said:
Assisted suicide offers the illusion that we can control death by putting it on our own terms. It suggests that there is freedom in being able to choose death, but it fails to recognize the contradiction. Killing oneself eliminates the freedom enjoyed in earthly life. True autonomy and true freedom come only when we accept death as a force beyond our control. Our lives and our deaths belong in the hands of God who created and sustains us. Through the suffering, death and Resurrection of His Son, Jesus, we know that death is not the final word. Eternal life awaits all those who entrust themselves to God.
Death with dignity is not about freedom, at least not in the way Archbishop Sample understands it. We cannot escape death. There is no freedom to change the reality of human existence. Too often we try to pretend there is by tying ourselves to machines and medicines that prolong both life and suffering. Unimaginable human suffering need not precede eternal life. Jesus sought to end suffering. It is difficult to hear a Christian extol suffering as a virtue.
Several years ago a couple came to the church I was then serving. They had been married in that church and now the husband was dying from a very painful disease. He had decided that when he was close to losing full control, and thus the ability to control and communicate his pain and fear, he would end his life under Oregon law. Would I preform his memorial, they asked? They asked with fear. Churches fighting Oregon's death with dignity have suggested or outright asserted that eternal life is not available for those who end their own life, regardless of the circumstance.
I told this man and his wife not to be afraid. God is a god of love, compassion and healing. Death is the natural end of life. Oregon's death with dignity is not about the freedom to choose death; it is about recognizing the reality that death comes and that we can take medically appropriate steps to make that death as painless and dignified as possible. Our churches ought to put more faith in the moral agency of our parishioners to make difficult decisions about life and death.
Of course, I conducted the service. After all, I voted for the law twice. It is good that this man's suffering ended when he did. Would I use it myself? As a cancer survivor, I say it is hard to imagine. Many who are terminally ill support the law but do not use it. The choice, however, should be available.
My thoughts and prayers are with Brittany Maynard.