TAG | Brittany Maynard
Credit where’s credit is due: I am not exactly a member of the Jerry Brown fan club, but the California Governor’s decision to sign his state’s cautiously drafted assisted suicide law (perhaps too cautiously: to take one example, those with Locked-In Syndrome might still be left trapped in their hell) deserves some praise, not just for his signature, but also the reasons he gave for it.
Gov. Jerry Brown of California gave a deeply personal explanation on Monday for his decision to sign legislation allowing terminally ill patients to obtain a lethal dose of painkillers from a doctor to hasten their death. When the law goes into effect next year, California will become the fifth state, after Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont, to enact and retain aid in dying or physician-assisted suicide laws. Many other states are considering similar laws; they ought to follow the example of these pioneers.
The California law has robust protections to protect patients from recklessly taking their own lives. Two different doctors must certify that the patient has six months or less to live before prescribing the drugs, patients must be able to swallow the medication themselves, and they must be of sound mind and not under coercion from their families. Hospitals and doctors can decline to participate.
Governor Brown, a Democrat, said that he had carefully read the opposition materials presented by a number of doctors, religious leaders and champions of disability rights and had considered religious arguments that shortening one’s life is sinful. He also consulted with a Catholic bishop, two of his own doctors, and former classmates and friends, who took a variety of positions.
In the end, he reflected on what he would want in the face of his own death. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” he wrote. “I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”
Well done, Governor Brown. That said, it remains troubling to read that, even after the vote in the California legislature, Brown thought it worth considering ‘religious arguments that shortening one’s life is sinful’. Much as I might disagree with them, there are good practical arguments to be made against assisted suicide, but why, beyond a certain point in the democratic process in a nation with a constitution providing for the separation of church and state, religious arguments should be given special consideration escapes me.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how ‘religious liberty’ is under attack in the US, but that’s a stance that can easily turn into an insistence on religious privilege, an altogether less praiseworthy objective. Under the circumstances, the determination of various churchmen to ensure that all Californians should be forced to submit to the prescriptions of a faith that they might not share was more than a touch ironic.
And for all the other arguments that those churchmen make, that infamous slippery slope and so on, in the end their objections are religious, based, at their core, on the argument that the rights of their God trump those of the profoundly sick, an argument made none the more palatable by attempts to elevate ‘suffering’ into some sort of sacrament.
I posted a bit about this phenomenon the other day, but clear signs of a morbid cult of suffering can be found in an article in America magazine by Jessica Keating, the program director of the Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame. It was written in response to the assisted suicide of Brittany Maynard in Oregon earlier this year.
For those who cannot see beyond the material horizon of death, suffering that does not appear to have proximate material benefit is emptied of the possibility of meaning.
Indeed, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are as much about unseemliness and fear of suffering as they are about death.
With the advance of utilitarian idealism and medical technology, it seems that nothing but a peaceful death will be acceptable, wherein peace is reduced to the absence of pain, emotional and physical suffering or the loss of cognitive and physical abilities.
To describe the wish for a peaceful death as ‘utilitarian idealism’ is telling. Fundamentalism is what it is.
There is another narrative that is routinely neglected or, worse, rejected out of hand, a narrative grounded in the logic of the Cross. This is a narrative in which suffering unto death can be penetrated and transfigured by the mystery of love—particularly in cases like Ms. Maynard’s, when one is surrounded by loving family and friends. This transfiguration occurs in hidden intimacies. Choosing to die early forecloses such possibilities. Had she not taken her own life with the assistance of a physician, she, like many who suffer terminal illness, almost assuredly would have been stripped bare of her abilities, perhaps even her mind. Indeed, there was nothing material for her to gain in suffering, only loss. Almost assuredly there would have been no inspiring recovery story to tell at the end. Rather, Ms. Maynard might have become unproductive, unattractive, uncomfortable. She would just have been. But she would have been present in a web of relationships. Even had she fallen unconscious, she likely would have been read to, washed, dressed and kissed. She would have been gently caressed, held and wept over. She would simply have been loved to the end.
That was a destiny that was hers to choose or to reject. ‘The logic of the Cross’, backed by coercion, would have denied her that freedom, that autonomy, that dignity, that relief.
As I said, ‘religious privilege’.
Brittany Maynard died tragically young, but with dignity and in as much control as an unkind fate had allowed her, taking advantage of the law in Oregon that allowed her to obtain a prescription for the barbiturates that would end her life before cancer did its terrible worst.
Writing in the Dallas News, Marcia Angell, the widow of a physician denied similar relief thanks to the cruelty of Massachusetts law, makes a powerful case for other states to follow Oregon’s example.
Here’s an extract:
Whereas hastening an inevitable death was once regarded almost exclusively as a medical issue, we are beginning to focus on what patients want, on their right to self-determination. And people are increasingly asking why anyone — the state, the medical profession, religious leaders — would presume to tell someone else that they must continue to die by inches, against their will….
The Supreme Court has twice maintained that that’s a medical question and as such should be left to the states, which regulate medical practice. The medical profession, meanwhile, has been among the main obstacles to more laws like Oregon’s. The American Medical Association’s official policy is that physician-assisted suicide is “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.” One possible explanation for this opposition, particularly among palliative care specialists, is that assisted dying underscores their limitations in dealing with suffering at the end of life.
But that stance puts the focus in the wrong place. This is not primarily about physicians or their self-image; it’s about patients — specifically patients for whom healing is no longer possible. We give patients the right to hasten their deaths by refusing dialysis, mechanical ventilation, antibiotics or any other life-sustaining treatment. Why deny them what is essentially the same choice, especially since it is limited to terminally ill patients?
In 2012, I was among the lead petitioners to put a Death With Dignity law on the ballot in Massachusetts, and I campaigned hard for its passage. Until a month before the election, polls showed overwhelming support. But in the final weeks, the Catholic Church, both nationally and within the state, began pouring money into TV ads implying that people would be coerced into killing themselves, and physicians and pharmacists would be required to help them. After opponents outspent proponents by about 5 to 1, the referendum lost.
This, of course, is the same Roman Catholic Church that has spent so much of the last year or so talking about ‘religious freedom’. It’s important to understand that’s a concept where both words matter. When the church makes that argument, it is not arguing for the cause of liberty in any generalized sense. Rather it is insisting on the right, under certain circumstances, of churches and their followers to assert their beliefs over the general law.
There is something very appropriate in the way that Thomas More was often cited as an inspiration for the church’s campaign. Contrary to what his modern apologists, papal and otherwise, have liked to claim, More was no supporter of freedom of conscience. What he wanted was his conscience to prevail over the consciences of others, consciences for which he had little regard. Dissent was not an option.
It’s not too difficult to draw a line between More and the way that the Catholic Church (aided by other religious groups) did so much in Massachusetts to insist that its views on ‘assisted suicide’ should be imposed on others. Of course, that imposition was the result of a democratic vote. That matters. Nevertheless the fact that the church did so much to suport that imposition on all the people of Massachusetts, regardless of religious affiliation or their own views on this matter, is a useful reminder of its distinctly narrow notion of freedom.
Meanwhile the National Catholic Reporter writes:
The Vatican’s top ethicist condemned Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life, saying there was no dignity in her physician-assisted death…
“Assisted suicide is an absurdity,” Carrasco de Paula told the Italian news agency ANSA. “Dignity is something different than putting an end to your own life….”
“Killing yourself is not a good thing; it’s a bad thing because it says no to life and to all that means in relation to our duty in the world and to those close to us,” Carrasco de Paula said.
The fact that life was effectively saying no to Ms. Maynard seems to have passed de Paula by, as does the fact that Ms. Maynard’s decision appears to have been supported by her loved ones. As to his remark about duty, it says a lot that de Paula doesn’t say to whom this “duty” is owed.
And of course the slippery slope makes its inevitable appearance in an argument that ignores the fact that the terminally ill have already slid down it:
Carrasco de Paula said assisted suicide was also dangerous because it offered a potential “solution” for a society that sought to abandon the sick and quit paying the costs of their illnesses.
De Paula, who is head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, an institution described by the NCR as being responsible “for ethical issues in the Catholic church” is, of course, entitled to his views. They are what they are, and they are unlikely to change. Roman Catholic teaching is what it is. But so is its refusal to respect the freedoms of those with which it disagrees. Its behavior in Massachusetts was a disgrace.
Maynard’s closing statement included this:
“Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness.”
And so she did. RIP.