Millions of Americans have been gripped by the story of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, newly married and looking forward to having children, only to learn that an aggressive brain tumor was soon to take her life, now choosing to end her life on her own terms rather than an endure an agonizing, debilitating death.
Brittany’s YouTube video has been viewed more than 7 million times, prompting millions of others to ask the question: What’s wrong with euthanasia?
After all, we put sick animals to sleep to save them misery and pain. Why can’t we have the same mercy on human beings? Why must the human race be slowly tortured to death while a pet dog is compassionately taken out of its misery?
These are weighty questions, and certainly no one with a beating heart can condemn Brittany for her choice.
She has also made clear that she is not suicidal, stating, “There is not a cell in my body that is suicidal or that wants to die. I want to live. I wish there was a cure for my disease, but there’s not.” And, “If anyone wants to hand me, like, a magical cure and save my life so that I can have children with my husband, you know, I will take them up on it.”
As a boy, I watched my aunt die from a brain tumor, and it was a terrible drain on her family, not to mention a horrific way for her to go.
Then, in 1989, I watched a close friend die from an inoperable brain tumor, despite more than two years of constant prayer for his recovery. It was agonizing to see him gradually degenerate, especially for his wife and children. Yet it seems that what the doctors told Brittany to expect would be more painful and difficult than what my friend endured.
Why should anyone force her to die like this? Why not die with your faculties intact? As she noted, “Cancer is ending my life. I am choosing to end it a little sooner and in a lot less pain and suffering.”
But some have reached out to Brittany with compassion and gentleness, urging her not to terminate her life prematurely, including Kara Tippetts, a pastor’s wife, the mother of four, and herself diagnosed with terminal cancer.
According to Kara, “Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known.
“In your choosing your own death, you are robbing those that love you with … such tenderness, the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending you love in your last breaths.
“As I sat on the bed of my young daughter praying for you, I wondered over the impossibility of understanding that one day the story of my young daughter will be made beautiful in her living because she witnessed my dying.
“That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath, matters – but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed.”
Others, who watched their own loved ones die a debilitating death from brain cancer, also urged Brittany not to go through with her decision. And University of Chicago medical ethicist Dr. Daniel Sulmasy said, “If I were her doctor, I would certainly try to talk her out of it. I would try to tell her what the opportunities are for her to live to the fullest possible extent that she can even when she is dying.”
Many are praying for Brittany – not only for a miracle in this world, but for a secure place in the world to come – and many are hurting with her, putting themselves in her shoes and asking themselves what they would do if faced with a similar choice.
And all this has sparked the debate about euthanasia, a debate that we must have.
Why prolong the life of an elderly patient who is at death’s door and is suffering indescribable agony, with no hope of recovery?
Why force someone to endure the unrelenting progression of ALS? It “eventually affects speech, swallowing, chewing and breathing. When the breathing muscles become affected, ultimately, the patient will need permanent ventilatory support in order to survive.”
In previous generations, we didn’t have the technology to preserve someone’s life in such extraordinary ways, meaning they would die far earlier in the disease than is the case today. (To be clear, euthanasia is distinct from using extraordinary means to preserve life.)
The Book of Job raises similar questions, asking why life is given to those who long for death (Job 3:20-22). Yet it didn’t occur to Job to commit suicide (in the midst of his own agony), nor did he see that as an option for others.
That was because he knew that ultimately, life and death are in God’s hands, and we frail human beings end up making terrible mistakes when we overstep our bounds.
To be perfectly clear, I am not judging Brittany Maynard (but I am praying for her), and I am not condemning others who chose to end their lives. (That would be playing God on my part.)
But I am saying that the ultimate dilemma is that there is no clear line to be drawn, and as the story of the Netherlands makes clear, doctors end up making all kinds of independent, life-ending decisions, determining who is worthy to live or die, while children as young as 12 can choose to terminate their lives, even without a terminal diagnosis.
The fact is that this world is fraught with suffering and pain, much of it unavoidable, and it is sometimes through the hardest, most horrific times that we grow the most and make our greatest contribution to the world.
We do well to cherish every moment of life we have, to do our best to relieve suffering and pain, and to trust ourselves into the hands of a loving Father.