In October of last year, 29-year-old terminally ill brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard made national news when she posted a video to YouTube explaining her reasons for planning to end her life via assisted suicide. Shortly after posting the video, she also wrote a column for CNN titled “My Right to Death with Dignity at 29”. She was quickly lauded in the press and on social media for her “courage” and “bravery”, receiving two cover stories in People magazine. On October 29 she posted a new video saying that while she still planned on committing suicide at some point in the future “it wasn’t the right time”. However, three days later on November 1, she ended her life with a prescription from her physician.
United States Navy veteran and Diocese of Raleigh seminarian Philip Johnson also knows something about living with terminal brain cancer, but his is a different witness. Johnson was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer in 2008 at the age of 24 and has lived with frequent headaches and a terminal prognosis ever since. In October, Johnson penned a letter in response to Brittany Maynard which also garnered attention and on March 18 he testified before the Connecticut state legislature. Both his letter to Maynard and his testimony before state legislature are powerful and timely as the assisted suicide movement advances its cause. In fact, tomorrow, March 25, is the first vote in the California senate on SB 128, the so-called “End of Life Option Act”, which would essentially legalise assisted suicide in California. Read the bill. Its language is chilling.
Suicide advocacy has seen success by taking a page from the abortion lobby playbook, framing the narrative in terms of choice (“options”) and autonomy. Even the pro-suicide Hemlock Society recently changed their name to the more palatable and euphemistic Compassion and Choices. Arguments in favour of euthanasia and assisted suicide are often wrapped in the language of compassion. In fact, the Hemlock Society’s rebranding came after merging with another advocacy group called Compassion in Dying Federation. But calling assisted suicide compassionate is a misnomer. “Compassion” literally means to “suffer with”, and we don’t attend to suffering by eliminating the sufferer.
In his testimony, Johnson critiqued the word-smithing common among suicide proponents:
“Just the name, ‘physician-assisted suicide,’ is an oxymoron. Physicians promise to cure the sick, not to hand them the instrument of their death. We can use all of the euphemisms that we want to make it seem acceptable, but the truth is that a doctor is prescribing poison to someone to hasten their own death. This is not medical care, and it is not love.”
The notion that authentic medicine should be aimed at healing and not hurting, at caring and not killing, is not especially Catholic or even religious. In the Hippocratic Oath, which predates Christianity by four-hundred years, the physician promises to not offer any death-dealing poison, even if asked.
In his response to Brittany Maynard, Johnson observed the tendency prevalent in today’s culture to dismiss all suffering as intolerable:
“Suffering is not worthless, and our lives are not our own to take. As humans we are relational – we relate to one another and the actions of one person affects others. Sadly, the concept of “redemptive suffering” – that human suffering united to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross for our salvation can benefit others – has often been ignored or lost in modern times.”
In reality, at the root of the push for euthanasia and assisted suicide is fear—fear of loneliness, fear of pain and suffering, fear of the last things. Most requests for assisted suicide do not stem from unmanageable and intolerable physical pain but from depression and fear. Rare is the case where physical pain caused by terminal illness is wholly unmanageable and requests for assisted suicide are more often an indication that deeper psycho-social needs of the patient are not being met. True compassion calls us to diminish suffering where possible, but most of all it calls us to be present to and with the suffering of others. More prevalent than fear of intolerable pain is the fear of being a “burden” on loved ones. Terminally ill patients (especially the elderly) often experience loneliness and isolation as their family and friends struggle themselves to deal with their loved one’s illness, withdrawing emotionally and physically. The request for assisted suicide can in reality be a call to be loved and cared for despite becoming increasingly vulnerable and dependent. Johnson testified to his first-hand experience of this in his pastoral work with the terminally ill as a seminarian:
“They [the terminally ill] are often ignored and are afraid of being abandoned. They feel, as I have often felt, that they are a burden on their families and on society, so an earlier death becomes a temptation. This is not a mindset where someone should be presented by society and the law to consider taking their own life. On the contrary, in my experience ministering to the sick, I have noticed that once they are surrounded by those who love them and have adequate pain management, they stop wanting to die. Suffering is certainly difficult, but with true love and true medical care, patients want to live.”
Brittany Maynard claimed she wanted to die “with dignity” but Philip Johnson reminds us that our dignity is not diminished by death or suffering. Suffering—our own or someone else’s—should’t cause us to retreat, but to offer ourselves in love. In his testimony, Johnson reflected on how his own suffering has not only brought his family and friends together, but has taught him something about empathy:
“I still live a life full of joy,” he said, “as my illness has provided the opportunity for my family and friends to rally around me in support, and for me to better empathize with the sick. I suffer, but this suffering has unleashed love into my life in ways that I could have never imagined.”
Johnson closed his testimony before the Connecticut legislature with this reminder:
“It is often said that a civilization can be judged by how it treats its weakest members, and the terminally ill are among the most vulnerable in our society.”
Click HERE for information on contacting your California representatives to urge them to vote “NO” on SB 128.