Brittany Maynard – a lovely 29-year-old woman who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer on January 1, 2014 – died a peaceful death nearly a week ago. I haven’t been able to get the circumstances of her passing out of my mind ever since.
There is little question that her brain tumor would have taken her sooner than later. The big question is whether assisting her death through physician-prescribed drugs violated a moral line we should never cross.
A number of years ago, a very close friend was in a similar situation. He was in his late seventies and suffering terrible pain. He happened to also be a cancer surgeon. When I would go see him, he would beg me to give him medicine that would allow him to end his suffering. He said to me repeatedly, “In my practice, I sometimes left pills near a dying patent with the words, ‘If you take too many of these, you might not wake up.’ Why can’t you do the same for me?”
Well, for one, I was not his doctor. I was his friend. I could not bring myself to prescribe him a lethal dose of medication. It was another year until he died of natural causes.
And yes, I know he suffered tremendously through those days.
If I lived in Oregon and he was a patient rather than a friend, would I have written him a prescription for a lethal dose of medicine? I cannot get comfortable with doing that, but neither do I condemn Mrs. Maynard or her doctor for what has happened.
I know we will all die. None of us want to suffer. If it is possible to provide people with the means to avoid suffering, I believe a physician should do whatever it takes to dull the pain.
Similarly, I do not believe we are morally required to extend life through ventilators and feeding tubes when there is little hope for recovery. This is especially true if the patient has experienced a wish not to have such means.
I do believe, however, it is wrong to couch this discussion around the oft-mentioned concept of “dying with dignity.” Death takes away our dignity in every situation. At death, our bodies are cold. Our pupils are fixed. There is no life in us. The ability to relate to another human being is gone. Where is the dignity in that?
What we do owe each other is the chance to die well, to maintain our courage and to be surrounded by the people we love as we take our last breath.
If faced with Brittany Maynard’s prognosis, I honestly don’t know what I would do.
What I do believe is that as she took her last breath, God was watching over her, and when she died, it was God’s heart that was first to break.