Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Death With Dignity"

Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman facing a stage 4 brain tumor, says that she has a right to "death with dignity."  "Death with dignity" is a euphemism for suicide with a prescription drug.  Maynard's doctors told her in April that she likely had 6 months left to live.  She intends to take a prescription medication on November 1 to end her life while maintaining that it is not suicide.  

"Death With Dignity"?  

The phrase "death with dignity" reveals a misunderstanding of what dignity is in the first place.  The presumption is that there's a way to die without dignity.  

Well, what is dignity anyway?

We get the word dignity from the Latin dignitas meaning "worth."  All human beings have dignity--inherent value and worth.  The way we die has nothing to do with our worth.  We have dignity because we are human.  Period.  

How did we get our dignity as humans?  

"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness..."  (Genesis 1:26)

We have dignity because God gave it to us.  He made us in His image and likeness.  What can be more dignified than being made in the image and likeness of our Creator?  When we understand what dignity really is, we understand that it is impossible to die without it.  

So, what do people mean when they say that they are seeking "death with dignity"?  They seem to mean that it is undignified, or beneath the worth of a human, to have to suffer.  We hear this language all the time--especially when the person envisions themselves "becoming a burden" to loved ones or going through the humiliation of losing their physical or mental capacities.

It seems ridiculous to hear that line of thinking and gaze upon a crucifix. 

Or look at images from The Passion of the Christ

Christ suffered.
He was humiliated.
Would we even dream of saying that He died without dignity?

He is God, and He went through humiliation and suffering before His death for us.  Nonetheless, we seem to think that we are above certain ways of dying. 

While we don't believe that suffering is good, and we can make appropriate medical interventions to avoid it unnecessarily, we may still suffer as we die.  Palliative care is a wonderful blessing and gift for the dying, but we are not guaranteed that death will be as neat, tidy, convenient, efficient, or easy as we try to make the rest of our lives.  So, if our death comes with suffering, we might as well put it to work.  

Just like the woman in the story, I am a 29-year-old woman full of hope and plans for the future.  I have no idea what God has in store for me.  I pray that His plan includes raising our children into adulthood and living a long, healthy life, but it may not.  

I've never received a stage 4 brain cancer diagnosis, but as Fr. John Riccardo says, "we're all terminal," from the moment we're born.  I don't get to choose when or how I'll die, but I pray that God will give me the strength to do it well.  My life is pure gift, only He gives me dignity, and only He will get to decide when my life will end.

The culture of death wants us to embrace suicide as "death with dignity."  To convince us that "death with dignity" is a good choice, the proponents have to do language gymnastics.  Brittany Maynard describes "death with dignity" like this:
"It is an end-of-life option for mentally competent, terminally ill patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live. It would enable me to use the medical practice of aid in dying: I could request and receive a prescription from a physician for medication that I could self-ingest to end my dying process if it becomes unbearable."
"Aid in dying"?  "End my dying process"?  Suicide is the taking of one's own life.  How can taking a prescription to end one's life be considered anything but suicide?  Look no further than the comment boxes related to this story, and the people choosing "death with dignity" are called heroic, selfless, and brave.  

I wrote a few months ago that I want people to do this when I'm dying: get a priest, make sure I receive the sacraments, and keep bringing me lists of intentions of people to pray for until I die.  By God's grace, I'll be able to die a holy death.  If I'm honest with myself, I admit that I'm terribly weak, so I'm trying to get spiritually fit for that moment now.  I'm keeping lists of intentions and *trying* to remember to unite all of my sufferings (big and itty bitty) to the cross.  That's tough stuff.  That's the stuff saints are made of.  Yet, that's what we're all called to.    

As we approach November 1 (All Saints Day), the day that Brittany Maynard has chosen to commit suicide, let's all pray that those suffering find strength in the risen Lord and remember their dignity.  May they imitate the lives of the heroic men and women in heaven who also suffered, remembered their dignity, took up their crosses, and followed Him. 

"If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me."  (Luke 9:23)  

If you or a loved one is struggling with how to navigate end-of-life issues, consult the National Catholic Bioethics Center.  They provide a free consultation service with qualified ethicists on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week -- (215) 877-2660.  They also publish an informative Catholic Guide to End-of-Life Decisions.        


  1. I read this story last night and was so upset by it. Thank you for writing about it! I truly think if we pray for her she will change her mind. I think Bl. Chiara Luce Badano would be a great person to ask to intercede for Brittany. The bishop who is taking initiative with her beatification says, "Her witness is of particular significance to young people. It is enough to see how she lived her illness and how the experience of her death resonated with the youth. Such a shining example could not be neglected. There is a need for sanctity today."

    She also died on October 7th (yesterday!) and her feast is October 29th just a few days before Brittany has chosen to die. She has such a beautiful story of suffering.

    1. Emily, thank you for your beautiful words. I especially love what you had to say about Bl. Chiara Luce Badano. I found out about her from Patrick Coffin on Catholic Answers Live. I love her story! What a great intercessor for Brittany! I will ask others to pray for Bl. Chiara's intercession. She is a beautiful example to all of us!

  2. Thank you for writing this, Catherine. I am so sick of the hypocrisy of a person who commits suicide being tragic because of bulling, but if that same person was terminally ill and killed themselves by a doctor's pill they are brave. What is the difference - the reason alone? Or when a baby is wanted it is a blessing, but if it was out of a mistake or rape, it's a curse. Same baby, different reason for existence; doesn't make that life WORTH any less. There is no such thing as 'death with dignity', there is only life with dignity.

    I also read that if death with dignity is suicide, then what does that make the people who fight through their cancers and sicknesses? Is that an undignified death? What about Robin Robbins and Joan London who are fighting their cancer, showing off their hairless heads on the front covers of magazines, raising funds for research and winning their battles? I can't believe they are so undignified! (*sarcasm*) Are they undignified? Unworthy of our attention and money? What about Jack Hoffman, the child with brain cancer who was celebrated when he made a touchdown at NU? Is his life worthless because they are continuing to fight and find a cure for him? What if he said he wanted to take a pill and end it all - would we celebrate his choice to 'die with dignity'? I think not!

    We are given one life, and when we would rather choose death in any circumstance that is not in our (limited) human view to be "perfect," rather than life, we are slapping the face of our Creator saying that our life (or another's life) isn't worth the gift that was given. It's like giving our teen an iPhone 4 and them throwing it back at us, cursing us because it wasn't an iPhone 5. Life is not always the greatest, we aren't always given the newest version (perfect health and circumstances), but that is not an excuse to not accept that gift for what it is, a gift given in love. We are to face all of challenges in life with dignity.