A few days ago Brittany Maynard took her own life, on her own terms, at a private residence in Oregon. Like many I’m deeply saddened by Brittany’s cancer and passing. Any condolences I can give on an obscure blog are weak at best, but I offer them anyway. I am both impressed and troubled by how public she made her choice to end her own life. Impressed by how articulate and open she was about her choice, troubled because I often wonder what good can come of making something so important fodder for an unthinking press. But she did make a point of taking her story public. From this I take it that Brittany wanted to bring awareness and debate about “death with dignity” and so I launch into these waters with trepidation – but I have to get these thoughts out.
First – some questions I’ve pondered…
Is suicide ever justifiable? Many people believe killing is justifiable, especially if it will end suffering (as in engaging in war to defeat an evil foe)…
Is there a difference between committing suicide because one is in despair or because one knows that her or she is terminally ill?
Why is suffering considered undignified? Is the indignity caused by suffering the correct pivot point when deliberating on this issue, or is there something that trumps, but does not deny the weight of indignity?
What is the nature of what some call redemptive suffering?
From a religious standpoint I realize there are many views on suicide, but Scripture is remarkably silent on the topic. Judas ignominiously commits suicide after he betrays Jesus, but this is hardly something to build a doctrine around. John Piper makes a theological argument against suicide here, but in my opinion it’s pure biblicism. Unless I can be corrected I believe there is no biblical injunction against suicide, or as I will now refer to it, self-imposed death. Undoubtedly the act of suicide can be utterly selfish – but I do think there are distinctions to be made here between suicide and self-imposed death. If someone where to commit suicide in an impulsive act of despair I believe that would be sinful. Especially if their death irresponsibly caused suffering and hardship for loved ones. It would also be a sinful act from which there could be no repentance.
Ever since I started mulling this over there is one scene from the movie, Schindler’s List, that I have not been able to stop thinking about. The SS are “liquidating” the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. As the soldiers flush the Jews out from hiding places, indiscriminately killing many along the way, a pair of doctors in charge of an invalid ward hear the soldiers coming. They know their charges will be killed by the SS because they are terminally ill. In an act of moral defiance they administer a lethal yet painless drug to each patient before the soldiers can murder them. When the SS storm into the room they shoot the first few patients closest to the door, but then quickly realize, because none of them are reacting to the shots, that they are already dead. In the last frame of the scene you see the doctors, a husband and wife, give the soldiers a look that says nothing short of, “F*** you and your Nazi ideology.” It should be noted that at least one of the patients is shown willingly taking the lethal medication.
Now, keep in mind that both in Brittany Maynard’s case and in the case of the terminally ill Jews - they are going to die a terrible death. What the doctors did in the movie and what the physician did in real life for Brittany Maynard could be considered merciful, ethical, and moral. If you object to these words being used ask yourself these questions: Is there any distinction between what the doctors did and what the Nazis were about to do? Is there any difference, ultimately, between the Nazis and the cancer in Brittany Maynards’ brain? Is there any difference between what the doctors did in the movie and what a real doctor did in Oregon (there’s actually little distinction because those doctors in the movie were real people and that is a true story)? If you think there is no distinction between what the Nazis were about to do and what the doctors did do, then should the doctors be prosecuted?
With all of this in mind I now state that I think there is a difference. There is a difference between suicide and self-imposed death, just like I think there is a difference between what those Jewish doctors did and what the Nazis were about to do. If I help you die before you suffer a certain and terrible death, and I have not forced you or coerced you, then that act is a loving thing to do. But if I take my own life in an act of despair, that is a hateful thing to do, towards my own being and towards those who love me; it would be no different than what the Nazis attempted.
Some might object at this point and say that this is simply an exercise in situational ethics, and that there is more at stake here. Brittany made a point of saying she wanted autonomy in her choice to end her life. I willingly admit that no one is purely autonomous. Choices aren’t made in a vacuum. We can’t make choices like this without affecting other people, especially those closest to us. Whether Brittany’s choice either has good or bad effects on society as a whole is an open question. I think it should stay open. But some things are simply more complicated than making broad statements about how such choices devalue life. It ignores how we qualify life worth living. I don’t think redemptive suffering arguments hold much water in these types of cases. Family members still suffer the loss of their loved one if they die with dignity. Individuals still suffer because they have to stare death in the face. Things can be learned from those experiences that make individuals better people, but there is nothing redemptive in watching my loved one lose their mind. It is suffering that can be prevented.
In the end it can be merciful and loving to help someone end their life and I don’t think that’s unbiblical or unethical.