Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old married woman with terminal brain cancer, plans to kill herself on Nov. 1, after her husband’s birthday.
The YouTube video she made to share her story and promote physician-assisted suicide has been viewed 5 million times. Her condition saddens me greatly. But even more tragic is the fact that online commenters have greeted Brittany’s announcement by praising her for being so brave, honest, and even selflessness.
There is a local angle to this story, too. The group making a push to legalize euthanasia across the country–Compassion and Choices–has one of its two headquartered offices in Denver.
The group twists the meaning of dignity by marketing assisted suicide as “death with dignity,” but behind their campaign is the culture of death that St. John Paul II warned about. The truth is we have dignity because we are made in God’s image and likeness, and when we choose to destroy that image, we deny God and put ourselves in his place. When we dethrone God and trample on his image, the evil one is pleased.
Brittany says that she plans to kill herself primarily because she does not want to experience the suffering that comes with the advanced stages of brain cancer. At a purely emotional and physical level, this is understandable. No one wants to suffer.
But there is much more to suffering than that. St. John Paul II, who suffered in a very public way at the end of his life, explains this beautifully in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae. The serious suffering of a sick person, he writes, can generate a “misplaced compassion” that is “aggravated by a cultural climate which fails to perceive any meaning or value in suffering, but rather considers suffering the epitome of evil, to be eliminated at all costs” (EV, 15).
This aversion to suffering is especially strong “in the absence of a religious outlook which could help to provide a positive understanding of the mystery of suffering,” he adds.
St. John Paul II provides us with an inspiring example of how to respond to suffering without giving in to despair. I am sure that many of you remember his last days as he lay in his bed overlooking St. Peter’s Square, a shadow of his former athletic self. The master communicator, whose voice had moved millions, could only mumble.
In spite of this, St. John Paul drew millions to St. Peter’s Square and united them in prayer. And with his last words, “Let me go to the house of the Father,” he showed the world that suffering has meaning if it is part of a relationship of love.
I pray that Brittany Maynard, and anyone else thinking about taking their own life, will see that what they are contemplating is not dignified, but undignified. It is a rejection of the loving Creator from whom they draw their dignity.
Contrary to the marketing by Compassion and Choices, assisted-suicide is far from compassionate. It robs people of the chance to be transformed by suffering, to offer their pain as an act of love for those in need of prayers. This is perfectly modeled for us by Jesus on the cross.
In the bigger picture, legalizing euthanasia would have unintended consequences that its supporters do not talk about. St. John Paul II warned about how a society obsessed with efficiency easily justifies a “war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected” (EV, 12).
Pope Francis has also spoken against our “throwaway” culture, which assisted-suicide only reinforces by tossing aside those who are sick or suffering, poor, or inconvenient.
The Netherlands provides a good example of how dangerous this culture is. In the past seven years, deaths from euthanasia have risen 151 percent. Many of those have been cancer patients, but doctors have also killed 97 people who were suffering from dementia. In 2013 alone, physicians took the lives of 42 people who were said to have “severe psychiatric problems.”
This is undoubtedly a war against the weak and the vulnerable. Catholics and all people of good will must actively resist the spread of this “misplaced compassion.” You can do so by supporting hospice care, comforting and praying for those who are suffering, and being willing to turn your own suffering into an offering of love for others and for God. In times of suffering, let us keep our eyes fixed on the suffering love of Jesus Christ for us!
Divine Mercy Supportive Care
Offering compassionate care to those who face end-of-life illness while affirming the sanctity of human life