Brittany Maynard's brave choice: Why religious arguments against physician-assisted suicide fall flat

A woman with terminal brain cancer is choosing to end her life on Nov. 1 — and that's her right

Published October 19, 2014 10:59AM (EDT)

Brittany Maynard            (CNN)
Brittany Maynard (CNN)

When Brittany Maynard was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer, she and her husband chose to move to Oregon, where she was able to take advantage of the state's Death With Dignity law. She will likely choose to die on Nov. 1.

Since releasing a video chronicling her diagnosis and decision with advocacy group Compassion & Choices, Maynard has become the face of physician-assisted suicide, and has reopened the debate regarding its legality. In the process, the story has garnered extensive media attention: She did a television interview with CBS, appeared on the cover of People magazine and has been the subject of scores of articles.

In the initial video, Maynard spoke of the tremendous relief she feels having been given the option to choose the circumstances of her death: "I can't even tell you the amount of relief it provides me to know that I don't have to die the way that it's been described to me that my brain tumor would take me on its own."

But her story is one that has been met by a number of critics — and critics who largely object due to religious concerns.

Joni Eareckson Tada, founder of the Christian Institute on Disability, wrote:

"I believe Brittany is missing a critical factor in her formula for death: God. The journey Brittany -- for that matter, all of us -- will undertake on the other side of death is the most important venture on which we will ever embark... Unfortunately, three countries and five states have now determined that individuals can make these choices for themselves. This is what happens when God is removed: The moral consensus that has guided that society begins to unravel."

On a website called Catholic Online, Chaplain Adele M. Gill writes, "I struggle to even think of this woman's plan to end her own life prematurely, as courageous. Because it is not. Rather it is anything but. In fact, in my mind, it is a self-destructive act of selfish cowardice to end your own life before God's perfect timing."

Kara Tippetts, a 38-year-old woman with metastasized breast cancer, sent an email to website A Holy Experience, in which she urges Maynard to consider her loved ones before making the decision: "It was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed."

When Maynard's story gained media traction, it was bound to provoke this sort of dissent -- and certainly, the ability to express one's views and debate the most important issues from a religious perspective is a right that should be respected. The problem is when this religious perspective intersects with policy.

Specific cases of physician-assisted suicide have been brought to the courts several times in the past, and they have all hinged on the idea of secular liberty. In the 1997 case of Washington v. Glucksburg, four physicians along with three terminally ill patients filed a suit against Washington state, asserting that prohibitions against suicide conflicted with one's right to liberty as stated in the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court found that the Constitution did not guarantee the right to assisted suicide. Later, Vacco v. Quill found that New York state's ban on assisted suicide conflicted with the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause and the Supreme Court left the decision of whether to legalize assisted suicide up to the individual states.

Most famously, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who facilitated assisted suicides for a number of patients, or as he called it, "patholysis," a term that literally means the destruction of suffering. He was charged with second-degree murder when he administered lethal injection to 52-year-old ALS sufferer Thomas Youk in 1998, and subsequently spent seven years in prison.

Today, only Washington, Oregon, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico allow physician-assisted suicide, although the organization with which Maynard is affiliated, Compassion & Choices, is campaigning to legalize the practice in other states as well. Far too often in individual state hearings has the idea of God been invoked to ban the practice, which is to be expected when the devoutness of a candidate is so important to voters. Still, such an invocation is fundamentally at odds with a secular government and must not be considered in weighing the pros and cons of the issue; yet somehow it continues to remain a valid point of view.

I want to clarify that my arguments do not extend to euthanasia (the deliberate termination of another person's life with the intention of relieving pain) or to the points brought up by secular disability rights advocates. My focus is solely on able-minded adults who, on their own, decide that the pain of living with a devastating illness is no longer feasible. The issue with outlawing assisted suicide for those certain, justifiable cases is that the law then assumes that life, by any means, is more important than personal philosophy and comfort. And that life-centric view is largely derived from our predominantly Western Christian society.

Why are legislators so eager to allow citizens to kill themselves via slow, painful methods (alcohol, cigarettes, firearms) yet so averse to a peaceful, painless controlled end?

Atheists, agnostics and those who don't believe in a vengeful God should not be shackled by a vocal interest group. For Brittany Maynard, the end is mercifully in sight. Her legacy will not only be one of courage, but also the reenergizing of a debate that is likely to live on long after she does -- one that pits our views of humanity and the law against one another.

To those who argue that Maynard is ending her life before God can intervene, she says: "Cancer is ending my life. I am choosing to end it a little sooner and in a lot less pain and suffering."

By Joanna Rothkopf

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Brittany Maynard Cancer Death Dying Healthcare Physician-assisted Suicide Suicide