‘One day the story of my young daughter will be made beautiful in her living because she witnessed my dying.”
These words come from the open letter a woman named Kara Tippetts wrote to Brittany Maynard, the beautiful young woman suffering with brain cancer who ended her life in November in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal. Tippetts was dying of cancer, too. But she wasn’t moving from Colorado to Oregon. She was fighting to take every last breath she could in the company of her family and friends (including the loving online community she had gathered through her blogging), to demonstrate that no matter how heavy the cross, love can see us through. The love of family and friends; the love of doctors dedicated to their noble profession and driven to follow the Hippocratic injunction “First, do no harm”; the love of all caregivers, serving humanity, seeing suffering in front of them and being a buttress and a balm.
Many of those who oppose assisted suicide and many of those who care for the weakest and most vulnerable — such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, who care for the elderly poor who might otherwise be forgotten and cast aside — come at their work through the eyes of faith. But God does not have to be your reason to say “no” to suicide. Stewardship of these short, precious lives we have and a solidarity with all who suffer might be. Or vigilant protection of the vulnerable. It’s not just those of deep religious faith who are sounding alarms and working to keep us from going further down this deathward spiral. There are also disability-rights activists, who know too well who gets cast aside in a culture of “choice” that judges the value of a human life on standards of convenience and utility rather than its existence.
Kara Tippetts died March 22. She died just days before Maynard would posthumously testify in the California statehouse via a video that assisted-suicide activists had produced before her death in favor of legislation that would bring assisted suicide to the Golden State.
But perhaps we can consider for a moment that the last thing we need is more suicide.
Suicide is already a “public-health crisis” in the United States, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine, wrote recently. “According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is currently the third leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults and the tenth leading cause of death overall for individuals over the age of ten.”
He points out that in Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide has been legal since 1997, suicide rates have risen, now 35 percent higher than the national average.
“Refusing to legitimate suicide helps those in need,” Dr. Kheriaty writes. “The practice of physician-assisted suicide — by whatever name one calls it — sends a message that some lives are not worth living. The law is a teacher: If assisted suicide is legalized, this message will be heard by everyone who is afflicted by suicidal thoughts or tendencies.”
Dr. Kheriaty is also wisely worried that legal assisted suicide won’t stop at “mercy” killing for the terminally ill: “Once we adopt the principle that suicide is acceptable, then the fences that legislators might try to erect around it — having six months to live, or having mental capacity, for example — are inevitably arbitrary.” He refers to a “relentlessly logical slide from a cancer patient with six months to live to people who are merely unhappy, demoralized, dejected, depressed, or desperate.” This is seen today in the Netherlands and Belgium.
In a thorough paper for the Heritage Foundation, Ryan T. Anderson makes the case that physician-assisted suicide endangers the weakest and most vulnerable patients. It corrupts the practice of medicine and the doctor–patient relationship. It hurts families by severing the ties that bind us, the commitments we owe one another. And, of course, it betrays “human dignity and equality before the law.” He is quick to add: “Human life need not be extended by every medical means possible, but a person should never be intentionally killed. Doctors may help their patients to die a dignified death from natural causes, but they should not kill their patients or help them to kill themselves.”
In her letter to Brittany Maynard, Tippetts hit on the point about the family: “In your choosing your own death, you are robbing those that love you with . . . such tenderness, the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending you love in your last breaths.”
It’s interesting that Tippetts used the word tenderness. I’m not the first to quote Flannery O’Connor in this context: “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.”
Death with dignity. Mercy killing. These are euphemisms. They mean different things to different people, pulling at heartstrings, playing on our fears. They are often weighed down with ideological baggage. We want to do what is best. Let’s work together to do that — to support the work of those who provide care, who spend time, who love.
The legalization of assisted suicide is under consideration with different degrees of seriousness at the moment in about 20 places around the country (including Washington, D.C.). Consider that while People magazine continues to run profiles quoting what Maynard said and did before she died, we cannot actually get her after-exit interview. Dr. Kheriaty sounds an alarm when he points out: “Suicidal individuals typically do not want to die; they want to escape what they perceive as intolerable suffering.” He adds: “When comfort or relief is offered, in the form of more adequate treatment for depression, better pain management, or more comprehensive palliative care, the desire for suicide wanes.” He then highlights the fact that “less than 6 percent of the 752 reported cases of individuals who have died by assisted suicide under Oregon’s law were referred for psychiatric evaluation prior to their death.” This, even though the medical profession knows “that the vast majority of suicides are associated with clinical depression or other treatable mental disorders.” He calls this “gross medical negligence.” Sure sounds like it. This is why there appears to be a rush to “mainstream”?
“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,” Kara Tippetts wrote in her letter to Brittany Maynard. It would be good to have this debate with an openness to the possibilities that the mysteries of life bring with them and with rigorous attention to ensuring that those who suffer have the support they need to live. It will be too late to reconsider once a nation of free men has opted for suicide.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.