Brittany Maynard as a cause and a person

One side wants to advance her advocacy for assisted suicide. The other wants to save her life.

Recalling Joseph Stalin’s remark that ‘one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic’, all the attention focused on Brittany Maynard may be serving the purpose for which she put her suffering self out there, to advance assisted suicide. But since it’s gone viral, it has also humanized the suffering of millions of others, and personalized them, too.

Just to recap this dramatic story,

Brittany is a beautiful young newlywed. Tragically, Brittany has a brain tumor that is expected to end her life in the near future. She and her family have moved to Oregon so she can legally take a doctor-prescribed lethal overdose, to avoid the suffering she expects as she approaches death.

Maynard has also joined with “Compassion and Choices” to promote their campaign to legalize physician-assisted suicide throughout the United States. In the last few weeks, C&C’s video telling her story has gone viral and been picked up by news organizations all over the world, including People magazine.

Groups supporting physician-assisted suicide now call the promotion of Ms. Maynard’s story “a tipping point” in their decades-long push to gain public support for changing laws.

That’s why this must be addressed and engaged.

So just to clarify, ‘Compassion and Choices’ is the very cleverly chosen name for the former Hemlock Society. They haven’t had a poster child for their cause of advancing the right to end life, your own or someone else’s (commit suicide or help kill someone else, to put it in raw but real terms) like Brittany Maynard and they are making the most of every minute she’s in the spotlight focusing attention on her right to die when she chooses.

But that attention going viral has forced the aggressive advocacy of assisted suicide and euthanasia into the news and the forum of social media. It’s about time.

Here are a few results, a fraction of what this story has generated in public reaction globally.

From the young Catholic seminarian with the same condition as Maynard.

I was diagnosed during my second Navy deployment to the Northern Arabian Gulf.  After many seizures, the ship’s doctor sent me to the naval hospital on the Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain, where my brain tumor was discovered.  I remember the moment I saw the computer images of the brain scans – I went to the Catholic chapel on base and fell to the floor in tears.  I asked God, “why me?”  The next day, I flew home to the United States to begin urgent treatment.  A few months after radiation and chemotherapy, I was discharged from the Navy and began formation for the Roman Catholic priesthood, a vocation to which I have felt called since I was nineteen years old.

This is important to stay with a little longer.

I have lived through six years of constant turmoil, seizures, and headaches. I often changed hospitals and doctors every few months, seeking some morsel of hope for survival. Like Brittany, I do not want to die, nor do I want to suffer the likely outcome of this disease. I do not think anyone wants to die in this way. Brittany states relief that she does not have to die the way that it has been explained that she would – she can die “on her own terms.” I have also consulted with my doctors to learn how my illness is likely to proceed. I will gradually lose control of my bodily functions at a young age, from paralysis to incontinence, and it is very likely that my mental faculties will also disappear and lead to confusion and hallucinations before my death. This terrifies me, but it does not make me any less of a person. My life means something to me, to God, and to my family and friends, and barring a miraculous recovery, it will continue to mean something long after I am paralyzed in a hospice bed. My family and friends love me for who I am, not just for the personality traits that will slowly slip away if this tumor progresses and takes my life.

Obviously, I have lived much longer than originally expected, and I attribute this to the support and prayers of others who have helped me to keep a positive outlook. I will never claim that I have dealt with my illness heroically or with great courage, no matter what others might observe or believe from my reserved disposition. I am shy and introverted, so I have not let many people become aware of the depth of my suffering. There have been times over the past six years that I wanted the cancer to grow and take my life swiftly so that it would all be over. Other times, I have sought forms of escape through sin and denial just to take my mind off of the suffering and sadness, even if only for a few moments. However, deep in my heart I know that this approach is futile. My illness has become a part of me, and while it does not define me as a person, it has shaped who I am and who I will become.

In Brittany’s video, her mother mentions that her immediate hope was for a miracle. My response to my diagnosis was the same – I hoped for a miraculous recovery so that I would not have to deal with the suffering and pain that was likely to come. However, I now realize that a “miracle” does not necessarily mean an instant cure. If it did, would we not die from something else later in our lives? Is there any reason that we deserve fifteen, twenty, or thirty or more years of life? Every day of life is a gift, and gifts can be taken away in an instant. Anyone who suffers from a terminal illness or has lost someone close to them knows this very well.

I have outlived my dismal prognosis, which I believe to be a miracle, but more importantly, I have experienced countless miracles in places where I never expected to find them. Throughout my preparation for the priesthood I have been able to empathize with the sick and suffering in hospitals and nursing homes. I have traveled to Lourdes, France, the site of a Marian apparition and a place of physical and spiritual healing that is visited by millions of pilgrims each year. I have had the great opportunity to serve the infirm there who trust in God with their whole hearts to make sense of their suffering. Through my interaction with these people, I received much more than I gave. I learned that the suffering and heartache that is part of the human condition does not have to be wasted and cut short out of fear or seeking control in a seemingly uncontrollable situation. Perhaps this is the most important miracle that God intends for me to experience.

Suffering is not worthless, and our lives are not our own to take. As humans we are relational – we relate to one another and the actions of one person affects others.

I just re-read his sincere expressions of hope and faith and encouragement, sharing his firsthand experiences for whatever good they may serve countless others, and I saw so much in this young man’s effort to reach Brittany Maynard and anyone else. He says a lot here.

So does this other young adult, this one a woman, who knows pain and suffering and the temptation to avoid it all. She’s passionate in her argument against the false narrative advanced by the assisted suicide movement.

Sometimes I can’t believe we’re having this argument, about autonomy over our lives, including when life itself should end. I shouldn’t be, in a culture that largely denies the transcendent and has no moral reference point, a culture ‘that acts as if God did not exist’, as Pope Benedict often cited.

Which is why Jessica Keating sees a culture afraid of suffering and death feeding into the drive to legalize assisted suicide as an early exit from potential pain.

Maynard’s narrative awakens our own slumbering fear of death’s arbitrary cruelness, as well as the suffering that can precede it.

The grammar of fear is suffused throughout this story. Yet I have come across relatively little in the media’s coverage of Brittany Maynard that even hints at the acute anxiety that bubbles to the surface each time she speaks of her disease…

“I’m dying, but I’m choosing to suffer less,” she says in explanation of her decision, “to put myself through less physical and emotional pain and my family as well.” Indeed, People reports, “Maynard says it’s easier to bear the pain now that she knows she is in control […] That’s left her space to make the most of her remaining days.”

Such assertions are shot through with contradiction. For all our planning, any one of us could die suddenly and tragically at any moment. But what I find more puzzling is the author’s assertion that an absolute sense of control over diminishment, suffering, and death gives meaning to one’s life and capacitates one for joy. Statements like the one found in People belie the insidious logic that Guroian observes in Life’s Living Toward Dying. “Secular moderns,” he writes, “cling to the belief that they can celebrate life at the same time they embrace a culture of death. Some argue that they can best embrace life by putting an end to the lives they no longer value” (17). To kill oneself is to say, at least implicitly, “I am better off dead because my life no longer has value.”

Maynard wants her death to be on her terms, as painless and as uncomplicated as possible; she wants to die comfortably in her own bed, surrounded by her family and friends, in control of her body and mind. We all want a death like this; indeed, Catholics petition for this kind of death every night in Compline when they pray, “Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” This certainly includes a death without suffering, but it does not foreclose the possibility that a peaceful death may be a painful one. We need only look to the witness of the martyrs to see such a logic unfold. With the advance of medical technology and utilitarian idealism, however, it seems this may become for many the only kind of acceptable death. Unhinged from a scriptural and ecclesial imagination, the idea of a peaceful death has been reduced merely to the absence of pain, and a painless death has begun to chip away the value of a life with suffering. Likewise, death has begun to chip away at the value of life, and in this configuration death is easily commodified. If we can’t master death, at least we can control it, make it more efficient and convenient, and make it involve less suffering, less anguish.

For Catholics, how providential the timing that this planned event comes on the weekend that observes both the Feast of All Saints (countless of whom suffered indescribable pain and torture) and All Souls (ditto).

Seminarian Philip Johnson is as hopeful as anyone that Maynard may change her mind.

I will continue to pray for Brittany as she deals with her illness, as I know exactly what she is going through. I still get sad. I still cry. I still beg God to show me His will through all of this suffering and to allow me to be His priest if it be His will, but I know that I am not alone in my suffering. I have my family, my friends, and the support of the entire universal Church. I have walked in Brittany’s shoes, but I have never had to walk alone. Such is the beauty of the Church, our families, and the prayerful support that we give to one another.

May Brittany come to understand the love that we all have for her before she takes her own life, and that if she chooses instead to fight this disease, her life and witness would be an incredible example and inspiration to countless others in her situation. She would certainly be an inspiration to me as I continue my own fight against cancer.

And to countless others, those who have devoted days and weeks of prayer for her change of heart and mind, those who have suffered through what she has, or have lost loved ones who have, but stayed the course to the bittersweet end of a full life and natural death. I devoted part of a radio show to coverage of Maynard’s story with bioethics nurse Nancy Valko and didn’t even mention phone calls, but they came in anyway. One woman told, with shaken voice, of her daughter’s diagnosis of such a brain tumor, but not wanting to hear the prognosis nor consider how she might avoid pain and suffering. Another woman said it was her husband who suffered through this illness. Other callers shared their stories in the little time we had, and they each and all told the poignantly painful story of suffering as part of the drama of human life, each accompanied by the love of family and friends and faith that whatever purpose it all serves transcends what we can know.

They, and seminarian Philip Johnson, will be happy to hear the latest news is that Brittany Maynard has called off her assisted suicide. For now, anyway. She probably has no idea how many people are praying for her. Nor how much her face and name and personal story have become the ‘every patient’ story of those who suffer serious illness or diagnoses, and who have countless, faceless and nameless friends caring greatly for them, and praying for their health and peace.

Pop media soft-peddling death

As usual, it’s being done under the disguise of compassion.

This storyline is getting mainstreamed, and even if well-intended, it’s dangerous.

I often think back on the tumultuous year that lapsed between my mother’s announcement that she wanted to “end things” and the night she succumbed to a lack of food and water, along with an intentional overdose of morphine.

The gulf in between is unchartered territory for families who haven’t been there yet, so this story is plausibly their eventual story, and they’re reading with an uneasy but inquisitive interest, no doubt.

What, I wonder, could my sisters and I have done differently? Should we have tried harder to talk her out of it? Insisted that she talk to a psychiatrist? Made sure she didn’t have access to lethal drugs or medications?

These are the kinds of difficult questions that face the friends and relatives of sick and elderly people who express a wish to end their lives. As my sisters and I can testify, the emotions stirred up by such a request can be intense and overwhelming. In our case, they ranged from sadness that our mother found her situation intolerable (she was suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease), to disappointment that she was “giving up,” to anxiety at the prospect of being there when she did it.

As my friend Nancy Valko points out about this story, which she saw featured on Oprah a while back:

The moral is apparently that when we put our own so-called bias aside and support the suicial person who has “the predictable effects of living with a SERIOUS OR DEBILITATING disease”, we will all benefit. (emphasis added)

Valko says this is dead wrong.

We have to get the point across that suicide is always the wrong “choice” and that we cannot discriminate when it comes to suicide prevention and treatment.

She knows this firsthand, both professionally as a longtime pro-life nurse/bioethics expert and personally as the mother of a young woman who tragically ended her own life.

Suicide is an unmitigated horror that is being soft-pedaled to the public while putting vulnerable people at risk as well as destroying our medical and legal ethics.

Don’t buy into this pop culture PR about ‘death with dignity’ because it isn’t. And what they’re peddling as ‘self-determination’ is nearly always someone else’s determination to hasten death exonerated by semantics.

Take the advice of Terri Schiavo’s family. Don’t wait until it happens to you to get informed about what to do, when it may be too late.

Palliative care and compassion

This medical specialty is intended to relieve extreme suffering in the final stages of advanced illness and give the dying patient personal care and human dignity. The right-to-die movement has seized on it as yet another inroad to sell its ideology that some lives aren’t worth living, and suffering is an unnecessary evil. And they’re doing it under the guise of ‘compassion.’

Just when a new study shows how acutely beneficial this care really is…

Adding palliative care early to patients’ standard regimens not only improves their quality of life but lengthens their life as well, according to a study published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Unlike traditional hospice care, which is available to patients expected to live no more than six months and typically requires them to forgo curative treatment, palliative care can be offered in addition to regular care, and can start immediately after diagnosis…

Patients in the palliative-care group had a 50% lower depression rate, and that didn’t result from the use of antidepressant drugs, said Dr. Jennifer Temel, lead author of the study and an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“It’s clearly something about how the palliative-care clinicians were communicating with them and managing them that improved their mood,” she said.

The study may help physicians better understand what the medical specialty of palliative care can offer to patients who are struggling with intense physical and emotional suffering, Temel said.

The former Hemlock Society is using this to suggest to struggling patients a way out. The group renamed themselves ‘Compassion and Choices’ to soft-sell death. Their director recently wrote this letter to the New York Times.

Leven starts by giving kudos to the medical community for offering palliative care, and New York Governor David Paterson for signing into law legislation assuring that patients will be informed of their right to receive it. All the way to the end of the final sentence of the letter, Leven strikes the tone of advocacy for patients and their end of life care.

The law will result in the provision of more and earlier palliative care, which The New England Journal of Medicine study found greatly benefits patients, and more and earlier referrals to hospice, as well as greater respect for patient wishes.

Those last five words hold the key to their agenda. So by sponsoring and advocating for this end of life care, the former Hemlock Society is positioning itself to introduce assisted suicide as one of the options patients may choose, and helping them ask for it more often.