Every once in a while something comes along that those who read and follow this blog expect me to address. The death of Brittany Maynard is one of those issues. It has been covered in every news outlet–major and minor–and opinions have been shared by countless others. Indeed, people far more knowledgeable about assisted suicide and both the physical and emotional pain of a terminal illness have already offered their insights. So I doubt I am going to offer anything new, but I will offer my thoughts nonetheless.
In case somehow you do not know, Maynard was informed by doctors last spring that she had a likely stage 4 glioblastoma. They said she likely had six months to live. A glioblastoma is a tumor “generally found in the cerebral hemispheres of the brain, but can be found anywhere in the brain or spinal cord,” according to the American Brain Tumor Association, and they are “usually highly malignant.” Maynard then moved with her family to Oregon in order to be able to access Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. Maynard announced that she would end her life when her suffering became too great, and later announced that November 1 would be the day she would die.
According to an article on The Huffington Post on October 8 Maynard received her initial diagnosis last January, and seventy days later was informed of the progression of the cancer and the six-month time frame she likely had remaining. “After months of research, Maynard found care options in her home state of California were limited and that treatment would destroy the time she had left,” the article stated. So she moved to Oregon, where the state’s Death with Dignity act “allows mentally competent, terminally ill adults with less than six months to live to end their lives with self-administered medication prescribed by a doctor.” Four other states have such laws, though Maynard made it her mission at the end of her life to expand that option for others. She partnered with Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization which seeks to “raise awareness about the widespread need for death with dignity nationwide.”
“Brittany’s courage to tell her story as she is dying, and alert all Americans to the choice of death with dignity, is selfless and heroic,” said Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee in a press release. And that is really what I want to address. Is it selfless and heroic to end one’s life in the face of tremendous pain and suffering? I would suggest that it is not.
Maynard told PEOPLE, “My glioblastoma is going to kill me and that’s out of my control. I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. So being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.” I have no doubt that a terminal diagnosis is incredibly terrifying. It is not my intention, with anything I say here, to minimize in any way the incredible challenge of receiving such a diagnosis and then deciding what to do, or not do. I certainly do not wish in any way to add to the pain Maynard’s family is no doubt already feeling. But what strikes me most about Maynard’s statement above is this phrase: “being able to choose.” The Right to Life movement is certainly focused predominantly on abortion, but euthanasia and assisted suicide are just as much a part of defending the dignity of life. Maynard, and those on the pro-choice side, believe that individuals should be permitted to make their own choices about taking the life of an unborn child, taking their own life when the quality of life is no longer what it could or should be or when the prognosis for the future is bleak and painful.
Several things need to be taken into consideration in this discussion. First, death is necessarily final. There is no second chance on death. A medical diagnosis is not. In 2013 Good Morning, America ran a story Heather Knies, a woman who battled not one but two brain tumors, one of which was a stage 4 glioblastoma. As of January 2013 Knies was still alive, six years after her diagnosis, cancer free. She had married and become a mother, even, despite the fact that radiation and chemotherapy can sometimes leave patients sterile. Knies, the story said, “broke the biological rules.” Interestingly put, though I would suggest that, difficult as it is to accept and understand, there really are no biological rules. God does whatever He wants to do. That is incredibly difficult to accept sometimes, and even frustrating, because we are left wondering why God heals some people and not others, why He allows some people to be afflicted with deadly diseases and not others…why, why, why. Like probably every child has heard from the parents at times, sometimes God’s answer is simply this: “Because I said so.” His ways are not our ways, and He owes us no explanation.
Joni Eareckson Tada knows about suffering. Having been paralyzed by a diving accident as a teenager she has lived for decades with both extremely limited bodily function and extreme pain. How frustrating must that be to not be able to use your body but to still experience pain?!? Commenting on Maynard’s choice, Tada wrote, “I understand she may be in great pain, and her treatment options are limited and have their own devastating side effects, but I believe Brittany is missing a critical factor in her formula for death: God.” Furthermore, Tada said, God “alone has the right to decide when life should begin and end.”
John Piper, addressing Maynard’s choice and Tada’s response to it, wrote, “The fact that suffering almost inevitably increases with the approach of death is often a terrifying prospect. Even those who are fearless of death tremble at the process of dying. … But this tragic fact — which the suffering apostle [Paul] knew better than any of us — did not change the truth: Giving and taking life belongs to God, not to us. And the suffering of our final days is not meaningless.”
I imagine it is not coincidental that WORLD Magazine‘s November 1 issue–the day Maynard had originally planned to die–includes an essay by Kara Tippetts. Tippetts has stage 4 cancer. Two years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her prognosis has not improved. She writes, “Cancer has found new corners of my body in which to take up residence. But so has God’s grace.” The response of Kara Tippetts to a death sentence is completely different than the response of Brittany Maynard. I do not know either woman. What I do is that Tippetts knows Christ and she has accepted His sovereignty. She has also accepted that He has a purpose and a plan, even though it is not the plan she and her husband had in mind and is not the plan either of them would have chose or wanted. Rather than choose to end her life when she wants to, how she wants to and without suffering, like Maynard chose, Tippetts has chosen to embrace the suffering because she knows that it is temporary and that there are things far more powerful than physical pain. Yes, she is dying and no doubt in pain, but that is not what Tippetts has chosen to focus her attention. “I get to love my children and my guy with this abounding love that comes from Jesus. But I also get to meet my last breath knowing a much greater love will meet my family. The abounding love I know from Jesus will love them long past my last moment on this side of eternity–and that love will be breathtaking. More and more, abundance and grace meet us where my body is becoming less and less. That is grace. I never deserved to know such abounding love, but it is ours in Jesus.”
I am not alone in wishing that God did things differently sometimes. I am not alone in wishing that God would explain Himself. But Kara Tippetts has it right. The abounding love of Christ is far greater than the pain any of us may bear in this life–even those dying from stage 4 cancer. We do not know what God may do. He may choose to spare someone’s life in a miraculous way, as He did with Heather Knies. He may choose to let cancer run its course, and He seems to be doing with Kara Tippetts. Whatever He may choose to do, He is the only One with the right to choose. Brittany Maynard had no right to end her own life. She is not God. And God always has a plan.