What death with dignity looks like, and it’s not physician-assisted suicide

| March 26, 2015 | 5 Comments
Kara Tippetts

Kara Tippetts

On March 22, Kara Tippetts died of cancer. She was a 38-year-old mother of four, a pastor’s wife and a writer in Colorado Springs. She chronicled her illness at her blog, Mundane Faithfulness, where she presented to the world not only the ups and downs of living with cancer, but also the deep Christian faith that grounded her. Her final post, written by a loved one, was an obituary. Its title: “Homecoming.”

Last fall Kara published a memoir, “The Hardest Peace,” but it was another piece, a letter, that put her name in the Washington Post.

That open letter was to 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who announced in October that she planned to commit suicide Nov. 1 — with the help of her doctor — to escape dying from terminal brain cancer. She had moved from California to Oregon in order to access its Death with Dignity law that permits physician-assisted suicide.

“Dear heart,” Kara wrote Brittany Oct. 8, “we simply disagree. Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known. . . . You have been told a lie. A horrible lie, that your dying will not be beautiful. That the suffering will be too great.”

As we all know, Maynard did end her life Nov. 1, although in her final days she suggested she might reconsider. Death with dignity proponents have since exalted her as a martyr, someone to put a beautiful face on a dark issue.

Expect Maynard’s case to play a role in Minnesota’s debate on the question — ignited March 19 with the introduction of a bill, S.F. 1880  — of whether to legalize physician-assisted suicide in our state. It’s called the “Minnesota Compassionate Care Act of 2015,” adopting the same euphemistic flair as the cause’s biggest national backer, Compassion and Choices, once more appropriately known as the Hemlock Society.

The Minnesota Catholic Conference warned that the legislation could be added to the state’s omnibus bill, overturning the state’s current law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide.

As written, however, S.F. 1880 doesn’t simply present a go-gentle-into-that-good-night option for people who think that is their right. It opens the door to abuse and coercion. Enacting the law would tell Minnesotans that it’s OK to think some people are better off dead, even if it’s themselves. It would plant the idea in some great-grandmother’s mind that if she only took a pill, she could stop burdening her children with her health problems and their cost. It would allow another young adult who fears that cancer will ravage his energy and pride to escape the love his family could have shown him as they walked a difficult journey together.

Perhaps worse, it could compel someone to suggest quietly to another that he take the fatal pill; after all, it’s been hard for the family to watch his health decline.

To affirm anyone seeking to expedite his death is to send a message to everyone in a similar situation: “Your life is worth less because you are ill.” That message doesn’t liberate; it only causes people to question their life’s value. It applies a utilitarian standard that measures lives by health and ultimately people’s ability to produce.

Certainly, the Minnesota bill tries to build in a few safeguards to prevent abuse, but no amount of safeguarding could protect the vulnerable from the message that some lives are worth more than others.

Minnesotans would do well to listen to Kara — not Brittany — on the matter of what death with real dignity looks like: a life poured out for others until her last breath, leaving a family not in tears, but with joy to have known their mother’s courage, love and hope until the moment God took her to himself.

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Category: Editorials

  • Paula Ruddy

    What you say is true, Kara died beautifully and it is possible that a person may be persuaded cruelly to end his/her own life if it were legally allowed. Isn’t it also possible, however, that a person may elect to die for his/her own good reasons without sending a message about the worth of anyone else’s life? In the U.S. we have an ethic of citizenship that respects individual freedom. Could the Roman Catholic Church promote its own value among its members without opposing laws that enlarge the freedoms of other people?

    • Mary Claire Remington

      Thank you, Paula for all your insightful questions. The separation of church and state is becoming more and more blurred. Mary Claire Remington

      • Paula Ruddy

        Thank you too, Mary Claire. The separation of church and state is necessary, but they don’t have to be adversaries. It really bothers me to see Catholics lining up as adversaries against the state and also against secular society. As citizens, we are the state, our own lawmakers. There is so much good in secular society we could partner with if we were not so hostile. Any ideas on how to change that situation?

        • Terrie

          I just want to say that I can see both sides regarding dying – if a friend of mine wanted to be assisted with dying I would listen and be supportive. I do not feel that my beliefs should get in the way of what someone else might choose. I’m not sure if it is my right to tell someone what dying with dignity is until I have walked in their shoes.

          • Paula Ruddy

            I’m with you, Terrie.