On May 25, 2017, the New York Times published a front page article about a man in British Columbia who planned his own wake – a living wake, that is – and who, after most of his friends had left, succumbed to a lethal injection administered by his doctor.
The article is well-written, and convincing. There is a sick man who doesn’t have much longer to live, or who (more accurately) is tired of living with his illness. There are eagle feathers and prayer shawls, and good food and hugs and tears. People light candles and present blessings and talk about “taking death back.” But someone is going to be killed, and even the doctor who administers the deadly drugs to the man acknowledges as much. Though “that’s not how I think of it,” she says adamantly. “It’s my job. I do it well.”
Other examples abound. There is the story of the elderly couple in Oregon who recently chose to go together: after sixty-six years of marriage, including years as medical missionaries in India, they decided that old age and infirmity – between them, Parkinsonism, heart disease, and cancer – were too much to bear. After their family documented their exit on video, they were duly hailed as brave exemplars of the new way to die.
Then there is Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine-year-old woman in California with an inoperable brain tumor whose struggle for the “right” to die led to assisted-suicide legislation there and in other states. Promoted as a hero by the likes of People magazine and CNN, she moved to Oregon to obtain the drug cocktail by which she ended her young life.
But it’s not just cancer and neuromuscular disability that is driving people to opt out of living. Increasingly, it’s depression – “exhaustion” with life – and now, in parts of Europe, even just old age. What is going on, and why?
Who Is Pushing for Euthanasia?
Having cared for the sick and dying for over twenty-five years, I can well understand what drives people to take matters into their own hands. Despite everything modern medicine has to offer, it has not yet conquered death, nor the suffering that sometimes precedes it by decades, and it is not likely that it ever will. Even as we have learned to successfully treat childhood leukemia and eliminate polio and diphtheria, we have not yet found cures for the scourges – arthritis, heart failure, incontinence, or insomnia – that seem to mar old age for so many people, even those who live in the most attractive neighborhoods and who don’t have to worry about their finances.
Data from the states where assisted suicide is now legal suggest that people aren’t signing up for lethal prescriptions just because they’re in pain. Instead, it’s because they are afraid of “losing control” – because they are lonely, afraid, or worried that they have become a burden on their caregivers – or simply because they want to do things “their own way.” In California, for example, the vast majority of people who have taken their own lives under the new right-to-die law have been well-educated white seniors who were already receiving palliative or hospice care. Almost all of them also had medical insurance, so cost was not necessarily an issue. And in Canada, one doctor who is also a longtime supporter of assisted suicide says that the patients who request his services come from a particular personality type: they tend to be the “doctors, lawyers, captains of industry, and successful business people” who “always get what they want.”
Too often, we have embraced our culture’s false gospel that happiness really depends on the absence of inconvenience and suffering.
Given the spiritual emptiness and materialism that often characterize modern life, along with the presumption that human happiness depends primarily on mobility, independence, and self-determination, it is understandable that we should have come to this place. But if it is understandable, it is also an indictment on those of us who call ourselves Christians. Too often, we have embraced our culture’s false gospel that happiness really depends on the absence of inconvenience and suffering. From there, it’s a small step to seek to bypass the infirmities of old age and disease by engineering one’s own death.
The Place of Bravery
For centuries, human beings fought against death with everything they had. Death was unavoidable, but it was still something to be feared and delayed. Now, however, we are suddenly facilitating it, even embracing it, as a solution to the pain and the problems of living. The reason for the shift, we are told, is that advances in modern medicine, especially life-support technologies that can postpone death indefinitely, have fundamentally changed the moral calculus. The old Hippocratic ban on causing a patient’s death must supposedly yield to today’s realities.
But even if suicide or euthanasia is described in comforting euphemisms and carried out on a comfortable bed in the privacy of our homes, is it really the solution to these dilemmas? Those of us who see the body as more than a mass of quivering cells must protest that it is not. If we are spiritual beings, made in the image of God, then our reasons to keep living can never depend completely on physical ability or the absence of discomfort.
All of us long for personal fulfillment, for happiness, and for good health, and we also want our lives to be meaningful. And yet such meaning cannot be measured by the absence of hearing aids and wheelchairs and oxygen tanks; rather, it must result from the knowledge that we have spent our best years in the service of God and our fellow human beings – that our lives were not lived solely for ourselves, but were in some way poured out for others.
It also depends on faith, which the apostle Paul defined as the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not yet seen. Many people today mock faith as the property of unenlightened zealots. And yet the real enlightenment is to know that with faith, we can boldly enter the realm which in this life we do not see or know. Faith can bring us a peace that surpasses all human understanding, a confidence that the throes of death are overcome not by a syringe of midazolam but by embracing what has been laid on us, trusting that it will not be more than we can endure.