Wednesday, November 5, 2014

All Life is Sacred

Brittany Maynard's decision was wrong, but not for the reasons you think.

What I'm seeing on the inter-webs is that many Christians feel that the only reason to be disappointed in Brittany Maynard's decision to end her life is if you group it in as a suicide. Suicide is wrong, therefore she was wrong. At this, I shake my head.

Technically speaking, yes, suicide is the term for what happened to Brittany Maynard. However, to pretend that the underlying cause of her actions is comparable to that of a more stereotypical suicide (for lack of a better term) is about as mature a position as young earth creationism. Suicide is a different issue (and is itself a vastly complicated one). Many progressive bloggers have keyed in on this distinction and concluded that maybe she wasn't wrong to end her life, some going so far as to say Brittany Maynard didn't commit suicide.

Coming at it from that point of view is a red herring. Suicide is not what we should be talking about. What is disappointing about Brittany Maynard's decision in particular and society at large is that so many believe that human dignity is rooted in quality of life. Life is only worth living if it can be lived under ideal conditions. That is simply untrue. Human life is by nature dignified, even if it's imperfect.

I readily admit that it would have been very difficult for Brittany Maynard to continue living - clearly her prognosis was dire. However, pain, suffering, and the loss of faculties do not empty life of its dignity.

The notion that quality of life is the measure of the dignity of life is related to the horrendous fact that in the United States, 92% of children with trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) are aborted. Reflect on that for a moment. What might cause parents to make that choice? The child is atypical? It will be more challenging for the parents? It's not what the parents imagined life or parenting to be like? Maybe it's something else besides, but whatever the cause, it's terribly sad. It betrays a survival-of-the-fittest mentality when it comes to human dignity. The only people who should live are those who's lives are worth living.

Here the reader will begin to write off the comparison, because I'm using Brittany Maynard's sad case as an opportunity to make a point about abortion. But to be pro-life is not just a question of abortion stance. The Christian is called to recognize that all human life is sacred: the child in the womb, the terminally ill patient, and yes even the convicted criminal. I am saddened that Brittany Maynard could not see the beauty of her life in spite of suffering, just as I am saddened that so many parents can't see the beauty in a disabled child and that so many Christians insist that criminals deserve death. None of us is in a position to point at a given human life and say, "end it," just as none of us is in a position to walk through the Louvre, point at a particular work of art and say, "destroy it."

Then there's this:
I've also seen people say that the reason Brittany Maynard was wrong is because it is God's decision when we die, not our own. I think that is an awful thing to say. The book of Wisdom teaches us, "God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living." (Wisdom 1:13) We are not on this earth to patiently await the time God has chosen to kill us. We are on this earth to be filled to brimming with the love of God, and then let that love be poured out of us into the world until such time as we are spent. "If you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love." (Bl. Mother Teresa)

Very plainly, the reason Brittany Maynard's decision was misguided is that her life still had value, even if she could not see it. Broken as she was, and as we all are, Brittany Maynard never ceased to be God's beautiful creation. It would have been heroic for her to go on living, and sometimes, heroism is precisely what God calls us to.

Still, though I've said her actions were wrong, I do still hope to see her in the Kingdom. If God in his goodness would deign to forgive my great sins, surely he can forgive someone who unfortunately did not recognize the Divine Image in her own heart. In the build up to her decision, I wished for all the world to have some way of communicating that truth to her, but, as Thomas Merton said, "There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun."

This is November, the month of praying for the dead:

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, 
and let perpetual light shine upon her.
May her soul and the souls of the faithful departed 
through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.


  1. Well said. I do appreciate the stance you take on suicide being a complex issue, and that simplistic judgments deny robust societal conversation. However, self-determination is a basic human right, and something no church or state house should have any jurisdiction over. The idea that 'suffering leads to salvation', or 'suffering for God' is, in my opinion, an extreme point of view, given the overwhelming evidence of non-Christians and Christians alike, avoiding suffering at all costs in earlier parts of their lives. (Think: Aspirin for headaches, Xanax for anxiety, beds for comfort, tv for avoidance of uncomfortable trains of thought, putting pets to sleep, etc.). Heck, look at Lent for Pete's Sake. One day a week of avoiding meat is the best sacrificial suffering Catholics can do? Thankfully, progressive states like Oregon, and countries like Holland and Switzerland view Death with Dignity as part of human rights. So thankful for proponents like Dr. Kevorkian, the Hemlock Society, and yes, Brittany Maynard for bringing this issue to light. Rest in Peace, Star Child.

    1. Lack of recognition or belief does not change the truth.

      It seems to me that "suffering for salvation" as you say is only an extreme position if you believe that suffering is intrinsically evil. The Christian understanding of suffering is that it is redemptive, but only since it was made so by God's example of suffering in order to save. Suffering is awful, but it can be made beautiful if understood properly.

      I'm not sure what you mean by self-determination, Matt. Do you mean only the right to take your own life, or are their other specific rights that come along with this basic human right?

      If you mean self-determination in the sense of free will, then we are "allowed" to do whatever we want. God will not strike us down with lighting bolts if we choose to reject and hate Him, but our right to choose does not make all choices equally good or bad, which is what I think you are implying. The issue here is not legal, it is moral.

      All life is sacred regardless of quality, crime, disability, or any other factor that is often used as a reason to end it. You are correct, Matt, that most Catholics do not recognize the sanctity of life across the board, so to speak, but that does not change the fact that life was created by God. Either we believe this, and therefore that all life is sacred, or we do not, and therefore anything is permissible.