Brittany Maynard’s Choice and the Challenge of Death

Brittany Maynard, 1985-2014

If you have paid attention your social media platform of choice the Brittany Maynard story has probably been shared or retweeted many times. With it comes a great divide of opinions on the matter. For those who might not know who Brittany Maynard is, her website is here and she has a video explaining what her story is. In a nutshell, Brittany was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer (officially a glioblastoma) on New Years day this year. She was given, at best, six months to live. There was no cure and whatever medical treatment she had available would only prolong her life in small increments. The rapid growth of the tumor combined with its difficulty to remove meant that Brittany would eventually succumb to the cancerous cells growing on her brain. Because of the terminal nature of the cancer, Brittany made two very important, and seemingly at odds, decisions.

From her website it states, “Brittany chose to live each day fully, traveled, and kept as physically active and busy as she possibly could.”

And later, “Brittany chose to make a well thought out and informed choice to Die With Dignity in the face of such a terrible, painful, and incurable illness. She moved to Oregon to pass away in a little yellow house she picked out in the beautiful city of Portland.”

Brittany chose life and she also, in a way, chose and embraced her own death. With the limited amount of time she had left, Brittany chose to live her life to the fullest and would also choose to die on her own terms. Brittany moved to Oregon because Oregon has a “Death with Dignity” law where patients with terminal illnesses, in consultation with a physician, have the option to be prescribed a lethal dose of medication to take whenever and however they choose. I recommend the documentary How to Die in Oregon for a peek into what the law is about and what is involved in the deeply personal process of choosing to die on your own terms.

This past weekend, on November 2nd, Brittany chose to take the prescribed medication and passed away in her house in Portland.

One of the typical Christian responses heard to this story (and many like it) is that we should not “play God” by choosing when and how we die. The Bible seems to often encourage us to choose options that lead to life and not death. And we are reminded over and over that God is the author of life which he supports until the day of our death.

The Lord!
He brings death, gives life,
takes down to the grave, and raises up!
1 Samuel 2:6 (CEB)

I would agree with many of my fellow Christians that we should always choose to support life as much as possible and that the breath in our lungs is a blessing from God.

However, the story of Brittany Maynard I think demands that we think much more deeply about what life is, the choices we have and what death really means.

For example, it struck me in thinking about this story that the Bible actually asks humanity to “play God” on a regular occasion. In fact, the Bible opens up with God asking the newly created humanity to act as his caretakers over the new creation.

Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”
Genesis 1:26 & 28 (CEB)

Everyday we are asked to “play God” and make decisions along those lines. Everyday we are given choices between good and bad, obedience and disobedience, life and death. God has created us in His image in order than we can take charge and make decisions on Earth. When we “play God” we are actually doing what he has called us to do, acting as His vice-regents here on Earth. Now, one only has to turn a few pages after Genesis 1 to see that humanity is habitually bad at the command to take charge and rule over the Creation. Sometimes we make good choices but most of the time it seems we make bad ones. But every decision we make is essentially humanity “playing God”, some decisions are just better than others.

So, was Brittany Maynard’s choice a good one or a bad one? Before I land on my answer to that, let’s consider one more thing. For the ancient people who penned the words of the Bible, death was a very mysterious and regular occurrence. Death came for many people without much warning. Most children died in infancy, mothers often died in childbirth, and any kind of serious sickness, infection or wound was very likely to end with death. For our ancient brothers and sisters, a long life often seemed the exception and death was an almost daily reality. Death came without much warning and without much regard to status, ethnicity, faith or family heritage. Compare this now with our modern medicine practices. Today, someone like Brittany can visit a doctor and after a battery of tests, scans and procedures and receive a diagnoses and treatment plan that will often cure whatever is wrong with them. Death has become the exception and we can extend life longer than our ancient ancestors. So long that we can even reach the point of artificially maintaining the image of “life” through all manner of machines, feeding tubes and drugs.

Often, however, someone like Brittany can with go through the same battery of tests and receive a terminal diagnosis and be given a timeline for when death will probably happen. Treatments will not matter much and will only prolong and drag out the emotional and physical pain of the inevitable

Death suddenly is not a random occurrence and it is no longer the exception. Sure the estimates are just estimates and death will eventually come for everyone. But, honestly, who at the age of 29 expects to be told (with reasonable certainty) they will probably die within the next six months. Within those six months, your body will rebel against you, you will have seizures, headaches, pain, nausea and progressively become weaker to the point where you can only tolerate lying in bed. As Brittany Maynard said in an interview with People magazine, “there’s not a single part of me that wants to die. But I am dying.”

I do not know Brittany Maynard, and only know what she has told us through her website and videos, but I have watched a very close friend go through a very similar process. I have watched the body become a pale shadow of what it once was. I have seen pain, nausea and weakness bring down a once lively, active and intelligent person. I stood in the hospital room the day they chose to stop fighting. I hugged, kissed and cried as I watched a nurse progressively increase a morphine dose that slowly took away the pain that had stacked up for years.

I watched as his mother whispered quietly, “It’s okay, we’re all okay, you can stop fighting now.”

I watched as life slipped away and I heard the last breath leave his lips.

All on the day that he and his family accepted the challenge to “play God” as He asks us all to do, and accept the reality death.

Life and death are rarely easy and the questions surrounding them should not be answered with a quick yes or no. Do I support Brittany Maynard’s choice to take her own life? With a reasonable amount of confidence I can say yes. I support Brittany just as I support my friend and his family. God’s command to act as his vice-regents gives us the option to “play God” and choose life or death on a daily basis. Most of the time, I would rather we choose life. But now when modern medicine can give us some certainty about the imminence of death, I would support someone’s reasoned choice, like Brittany Maynard, to die with dignity surrounded by the loving support of their friends, family and loved ones. Extending life beyond the point of dignity, value and necessity can be just as harmful as ending a life prematurely and without reason. I pray that we would put a high price on the value of life and not give it up cheaply but be just as willing to love and support those who accept death when it is staring them in the face.

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6 thoughts on “Brittany Maynard’s Choice and the Challenge of Death

  1. I agree, Greg, particularly with your thoughts about “extending life beyond the point of dignity, value, and necessity”. I think Brittany (and others) have made an agreeable choice, but I feel for those people who might feel shamed for not choosing this route. By calling the laws “Death with Dignity” I think it automatically makes those with a terminal illness that don’t choose this route undignified. I think that if death was truly on “their own terms” they would choose a much different route.

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  2. Well written and I completely agree with you. It is extremely complicated and I like your hermeneutic of “playing God.” One thing that i have find interesting is how quickly people can say that we should not “play god” when it comes to things like euthenasia, but yet, I do not here that same response with things like the death penalty or war.

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    • Thanks Bryan. I also read an article by Benjamin Corey who compared her choice to those who jumped out of the burning and soon collapsing World Trade Center buildings on 9/11. Nobody questioned their choice either and suggested they should have stayed inside to meet their end by burning and suffocatin rather than choosing to throw themselves out the window. We do “play God” a lit more than we like to admit.

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  3. Pingback: Looking Back on 2014 and Forward to 2015 | Fascinating Mystery

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