Brittany Maynard and the Gift of Life

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Like most people, I was deeply moved when Brittany Maynard took her life Saturday. Maynard, 29, was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer last spring. After learning there was no treatment, she chose to end her life rather than let the disease run its course. So surrounded by her family at their home in Portland, Oregon, she took an overdose of barbiturates prescribed by a doctor under the state’s Death with Dignity Act and within a few minutes peacefully died.

Brittany was a beautiful and vivacious young woman, and her smiling pictures will break your heart. She was also an articulate spokesperson for Compassion & Choices, an organization seeking to change laws in all fifty states to allow more freedom for terminally ill patients to end their lives. In the six months between her diagnosis last spring and her death last week, she captured national attention as she chronicled the poignant journey that led finally to her rendezvous with death.

“Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love. Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me … but would have taken so much more,” she wrote on Facebook. “The world is a beautiful place, travel has been my greatest teacher, my close friends and folks are the greatest givers. I even have a ring of support around my bed as I type … Goodbye world. Spread good energy. Pay it forward!”

Brittany’s courage in the face of her disease was extraordinary. For anyone who has known and loved someone with a terminal disease, we know the pain and fear can overwhelm even the strongest people. People like Brittany deserve our respect, if for no other reason than for her capacity to deal with her condition in a way that connected with so many throughout the nation. She showed what grace under pressure is all about.

At the same time, Brittany’s death created a firestorm of controversy. When and how should we have the right to end life? People are lining up on either side of the argument, with proponents of euthanasia claiming that we should have the legal authority to determine our own response to terminal illness. Opponents of euthanasia believe that life is precious—indeed it is a gift from God—and we don’t have a right to end it according to our personal choice.

I think there are several levels to the debate. The first, most basic level is how life belongs to God, a conviction reflected in the biblical injunctions against the taking of human life. Murder is condemned for that reason. Evangelical Christians view abortion in the same light. Life—all life—is the gift of the Creator and we as his creatures don’t have the authority to take it of our own volition.

A second level of the debate emerges when we recognize how medical technology has advanced to the point where biological life can be extended beyond any biblical point of reference. For that reason, I’m a firm believer in living wills. I’ve been with many families as they disconnected their loved ones from machines that were keeping their organs functioning even after life had plainly left them. Such an act isn’t the taking of life but the recognition that life has already ceased.

Brittany’s illness, though, didn’t fall into that category. Unlike a comatose person on a ventilator, she was coherent and cognizant of her actions when she chose to end her life by her own hand. We can understand that she wanted to spare herself from further pain and suffering while at the same time sparing her family of the expense and suffering of watching the inevitable progress of her tumor. Still, her act, for the very reason that it was in fact coherent, was suicide, no matter how you parse her motives.

Yet a third level of debate is how the euthanasia that Oregon authorized Brittany to perform is always a slippery slope. While many might applaud the state for allowing this kind of radical choice, other places that have legalized the practice soon discover how the definition of what constitutes a life not worth living expands. In the Netherlands, for example, where euthanasia has been legal since 2002, people with dementia as well as other psychiatric problems now qualify under the law to take their own lives. Once a culture loses the sense of life as a divine gift, it becomes just one more experience that can be controlled according to personal preference.

But it’s a fourth level that really catches my attention in Brittany’s death. An integral part of how families move through life is how we care for our family members in times of pain and suffering. People today tend to run from suffering—and goodness knows we have many means of doing that. But through secular as well as Christian history, suffering often has had a way of deepening and enriching life.

For instance, my father in law is almost completely paralyzed because of a catastrophic accident he suffered four years ago. His wife cares for him diligently and sacrificially. The two of them struggle and suffer through his physical condition. To a much lesser degree we as his extended family do, too. Yet, his suffering—according to the Bible—is preparing his soul for glory. It’s also altering our family dynamics in positive ways. For us to evade, eliminate or escape life’s suffering will, in the end, rob us of a precious and irreplaceable opportunity for our families to grow in ways that otherwise we’d never experience. I don’t understand the mystery of suffering and why a good God allows it. But I believe that our culture’s refusal to suffer robs us of true emotional, mental and spiritual maturity.

Brittany identified this very issue as central to her choice: “I’m not killing myself. Cancer is killing me. I am choosing to go in a way that is less suffering and less pain,” Maynard told NBC News during a phone interview Oct. 9.

“Not everybody has to agree that it’s the right thing, because they don’t have to do it. And it’s an option that for me has provided a lot of relief, because the way that my brain cancer would take me organically is very terrible. It’s a horrible way to die. The thought that I can spare myself the physical and emotional lengthy pain of that, as well as my family, is a huge relief.”

I grieve for Brittany and all those like her who suffer from such a terrible disease. But I also grieve for our nation because we no longer believe that life is a precious and irreplaceable gift from God.

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