If there’s one thing that each and every one of us should have some semblance of control over, it’s our own deaths. Due to the way that social systems are typically structured, the best most of us can manage is some vague power over how our personal lives are run amongst the whole of society, lest we completely jump off the grid and abandon all-known civilization. But the time and manner in which we leave this party is a one-time occurrence, and it requires little from the social systems in which we live. Notwithstanding the power others may have over the manner in which we part with our final breath, there’s no denying that we all have some say as to whether we make it to the end of the day or not.
But if you hear it from the spokespeople of the world’s greater religious traditions, one gets the impression that we’re actually not the owners of our lives. If we choose, for whatever reason, to end our lives before nature intends, so to speak, we’re robbing a third party of their right on our lives. Yahweh, it appears, feels personally cheated if a person with a terminal case of cancer doesn’t suffer for as long as possible. So the question is, what is this rubbish all about?
Let’s be clear here: I’m talking about end-of-life planning and an individual’s right to choose their own way out when already faced with a death sentence. Though another interesting topic in its own right, I’m not writing about the issues surrounding why a person might want to commit suicide when they’re living an all but healthy life.
There are currently only a handful of states in the country that have some form of Death with Dignity legislation which allows citizens to have the option to physician-assisted suicide when faced with a terminal illness, almost all of which are along the western coast of the United States. And in each of these places, advocates against the legislation are vocal and diligent. Though there are sometimes “secular” reasons against such legislation (which still primarily amount to distortions of the truth or some weird paranoia where the government is going to require that you be killed at the first cough), the most prominent arguments always come wrapped in a religious package (and in some cases, it’s a religious argument coupled with government paranoia). During the controversial final months of the life of Brittany Maynard in 2014, various religionists of all stripes came out of the woodwork to condemn the cancer patient’s decision to move to Oregon, a Death with Dignity state, in order to alleviate some amount of her inevitable suffering. The high profile case caught the attention of everyone from Pope Francis on down.
“I believe Brittany is missing a critical factor in her formula for death: God,” wrote Joni Eareckson Tada for the Religion News Service in a piece called “God alone chooses the day you die, not you.” Pope Francis on the topic during the time said that, “This is playing with life. Beware because this is a sin against the creator, against God the creator.” The Vatican, in general, has come out referring to the entire concept of assisted suicide as “an absurdity.”
Well, that’s a point of view. But it fails to take into consideration why the state, which has a secularly conceived constitution, should care. I have no doubt that these are sincerely held beliefs, but they lack persuasion.
Ignoring the paranoia aspect for a moment, it’s an odd combination of servility and totalitarianism to take the stance that you mustn’t end your suffering because of the will of the boss. It’s servility because it is the relinquishing of your most personal battle to someone other than yourself, and it’s totalitarianism because since God never comes out directly to say you can’t do this, the message is spread by anyone and everyone who desires to have some sort of control over others. To object to Death with Dignity legislation is to desire to impose your will over individuals far beyond yourself. And to what effect? Only to make them suffer.
But that’s Christianity. Suffering is an important part of the philosophy behind the religion, for it’s what Jesus is said to have experienced before his untimely death. Ol’ Holy Mother Teresa herself famously said that “pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus – a sign that you have come so close to him that He can kiss you.” Unfortunately, Christians have decided it’s more important to focus on the suffering aspect of Jesus’s experience, and not the part where he actually died to alleviate pain. Because that might just be a halfway decent allegory for assisted suicide.
A person’s right to have the state sanction their ability to have some choice in how they die is going to remain a contentious issue, and that’s alright. It’s a delicate topic, and even if it’s just the result of paranoid delusions, there’s the possibility for abuse in crafting the legislation (it wouldn’t be the first time those in power have attempted to wipe out groups of people, hence our lack of Amalekites after the Israelites were through with them). But the pros far outweigh the cons when we can maintain a civilized society that encourages personal autonomy with such important decisions, which in turn lessens the suffering experienced in the world.