Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


Living and Dying


Stephen V. Monsma

11-24-2014


By Stephen V. Monsma

November 24, 2014

 

On November 1, Brittany Maynard, a 29-year old woman and wife with a terminal brain tumor, committed suicide with the drugs legally prescribed by an Oregon physician. Before her suicide, she recorded a video in which she explained why she chose this course. It has been viewed by millions on YouTube and has raised the issue of whether our laws should allow doctors to help terminally ill persons take their own lives. Three states—Oregon, Washington, and Vermont—already allow physician-assisted suicide. Others are considering such laws, and advocacy organizations are pushing hard for their passage.

So how does a Christian understanding of persons, human society, and the God-given, justice-seeking role of governments inform our reaction to Maynard’s suicide and the issues it raises?

Certainly, we must consider what level of care should be available to a person when every indication is that death is drawing near. Advances in medical technology often allow doctors to keep a person alive even when there is little or no prospect of restoring that person to health. These efforts are more about delaying and drawing out the dying process than healing. Morally and legally, such situations do not demand that all medical steps be taken to prolong life or, better, to delay death. There comes a time to stop further medical procedures and entrust one’s self or loved one into the hands of a merciful Savior. 

However, Maynard’s death raises a quite different question. The value and worth of every human life supports one of the fundamental responsibilities of governments and the rule of law: the protection of human life. A range of policies are in place to safeguard human lives. Appropriately, governments, either directly or through community organizations, work to prevent suicides through mental health clinics, suicide hotlines, and other such efforts. Yet three states have public policies that have created a means by which persons are not discouraged from committing suicide, but are enabled to do so. 

Let no one pretend this is an easy issue. The world, as Christians have taught down through the centuries, is not as it is supposed to be. Young wives are not supposed to be struck down by brain cancers; elderly parents are not supposed to be ravaged by dementia. 

What struck me most while watching Maynard’s video was that her worldview emphasized personal, individual choice and a desire to control her own destiny. Similarly, the website of an assisted suicide advocacy organization, Death with Dignity, proclaims: “The greatest human freedom is to live, and die, according to one's own desires and beliefs.” As such, the assisted suicide movement is a manifestation of a much broader tendency in our society wherein personal, individual “choice” is the dominant watchword.

Maggie Karner, another young women suffering from a life-threatening brain tumor, posted a parallel video to Maynard’s in which she urged Maynard not to commit suicide. The big difference—apart from the opposite conclusions they reach—is that Karner’s video emphasizes not the importance of individual choice, but the importance of the network of human relationships into which she is woven. She speaks of family, friends, and the broader society who would be affected by her suicide—and by Maynard’s. She has committed not to cut her life short, first of all, not because she doesn’t want to spare herself the suffering and indignity of a debilitating disease, but because she believes each day of her life has meaning for her family, friends, and society.

The choice to end one’s life, even in the face of a terminal illness, is about much more than individual choice and control. “Death with dignity” has a nice sounding ring to it, but the organization, Not Dead Yet, makes a needed point on its website when it condemns the idea that disability equates with loss of dignity. Dignity is inherent in all of us—regardless of physical or mental impairments—because it is an integral aspect of our God-given nature as his image bearers. 

So what then should be the role of governments and public policies?  How does public justice respond to the awesome questions of life and death when persons are facing terminal illnesses? 

Let me suggest three things. One, public policies should be very slow to mandate medical efforts to prolong life for those nearing death where there is no hope of restoring health. Decisions about medical efforts ought to be left up the dying person, his or her family, medical personnel, and, perhaps, a pastor close to the family. 

Second, public policies should not allow for physicians to assist persons to commit suicide. It is, of course, already not illegal—even if deeply tragic—for persons to commit suicide. The public justice question is whether governments should allow physicians to assist terminally ill persons to end their lives. But the lives of persons with certain disabilities or terminal illnesses are not without dignity and worth. Both Karner in her video and a Christian understanding of life, testify that all human lives have purpose, dignity, and meaning—for their families and for society. It is not the role of governments to help persons to end their lives.

This leads to my third observation. Just public policies should support programs that help the terminally ill, such as hospice care, visiting nurses, and financial assistance. A person with a terminal illness should never feel that suicide—whether physician-assisted or not—is the only way to spare their loved ones a burden they are facing alone. If justice means giving all persons their due, then what is due our fellow citizens who are facing the tragedy of a debilitating, terminal illness is the financial and physical support they and their families need. Perhaps much of the steam now moving the “death with dignity” movement would dissipate if governments would follow this justice-seeking approach.

 

- Stephen V. Monsma is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College and Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Pepperdine University.



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