Brittany Maynard, Kara Tippetts, and the Right to Die

By now, most of you have read the story of Brittany Maynard. At 29 years old, Brittany was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer only a year after getting married. After brain surgery, she was told she had six months to live and decided to move to Oregon to take advantage of that state's Death with Dignity Law. After receiving a prescription for medication that will end her life, Brittany has chosen her last few weeks to advocate for the right to die. 

Right now it’s a choice that’s only available to some Americans, which is really unethical,” she says.

”The amount of sacrifice and change my family had to go through in order to get me to legal access to death with dignity – changing our residency, establishing a team of doctors, having a place to live – was profound,” she says.

”There’s tons of Americans who don’t have time or the ability or finances,” she says, “and I don’t think that’s right or fair.
— Brittany Maynard

I agree with Brittany Maynard wholeheartedly and, to be honest, I assumed most everyone else did, too. That was until a blog post started appearing in my Facebook feed. It's a guest post by Kara Tippetts on the blog A Holy Experience and is an open letter to Brittany Maynard. Entitled Dear Brittany: Why We Don’t Have To Be So Afraid of Dying & Suffering that We Choose Suicide, the post is a heartfelt and passionate plea from Tippetts to Maynard to reconsider her choice. 

Tragically, Tippetts is uniquely situated to comment on Maynard's choice because she herself is battling terminal cancer. She speaks sincerely and eloquently about her own struggle and what she sees as the blessings and grace found within the journey of the dying and the struggle of suffering. 

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

I also agree with Tippetts to an extent. I also believe there can be beauty and grace in the midst of great suffering. I think running from death and grief is a fool's errand and the most profound moments of our human existence are when we allow space for vulnerability to experience the epic mix of joy and pain that is life itself.

However, I strongly disagree with Tippetts on two points. She argues that doctors assisting Maynard in her journey are breaking their Hippocratic oath to do no harm and uses the "beautiful partnership" she's built with her own doctors as evidence. 

Today my oncologist and I spoke of your dying, of my dying, and of the beautiful partnership I have with my doctors in carrying me to my last moments with gentle care. For two thousand years doctors have lived beside the beautiful stream of protecting life and lovingly meeting patients in their dying with grace.

The doctor that prescribed you that pill you carry with you that will hasten your last breath has walked away from the hippocratic oath that says, “first, do no harm.” He or she has walked away from the oath that has protected life and the beautiful dying we are granted. The doctors agreeing to such medicine are walking away from the beautiful protection of the hippocratic oath.
— Kara Tippetts

Tippetts is extraordinarily lucky to have found such a partnership with her health care providers but the sad reality is that for millions of Americans "dying with grace" is not a choice they are given.

Earlier this year, a 21-member nonpartisan committee, appointed by the Institute of Medicine, the independent research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, released a report called Dying in America. The conclusion of the report was clear.

The bottom line is the health care system is poorly designed to meet the needs of patients near the end of life,” said David M. Walker, a Republican and a former United States comptroller general, who was a chairman of the panel. “The current system is geared towards doing more, more, more, and that system by definition is not necessarily consistent with what patients want, and is also more costly.
— New York Times

This report doesn't even include a discussion of death with dignity. The conclusion was, even for patients who want to face death as Tippetts has, the system does not work to their benefit. They are over-treated, over-medicated, and left with little choice in one of the most exquisitely personal decisions a human being can make - how to face death.

The personal manner of this choice is the second point in which I greatly disagree with Tippetts. She makes an impassioned plea based on her religious beliefs that only God should decide when we take our last breath and that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is what Maynard needs in her life.

He died and He overcame death three days later, and in that overcoming of death He overcame the death you and I are facing in our cancer. He longs to know you, to shepherd you in your dying, and to give you life and give you life abundant- eternal life.
— Kara Tippetts

I'm not here to debate who should decide when I take my last breath. Kara Tippetts has every right in the world to believe that death with dignity is suicide and every right in the world to battle death on her own personal, spiritual, and emotional terms.

However, so does Brittany Maynard.

It is not the purpose of law to determine which philosophy is correct. A Death with Dignity law in all 50 states should exist so that no matter which road an American chooses to take when faced with the impossible journey of terminal illness that road is available to them.

Now, no one is arguing that crafting a law that allows someone to exercise his or her right to die would be easy. However, merely because a legislative task would be procedurally difficult or ethically complex does not mean we shouldn't try. 

Oregon has had a death with dignity law for 17 years and has not been faced with a "slippery slope" situation in which depressed people or exploited elders are taken advantage of under the law. The numbers speak to the reality of the situation. Since its passage in 1997, 1,173 people have had prescriptions written under the act, and 752 have used them to die. 

So, while I have nothing but the utmost respect for Kara Tippetts's journey and her plea to Brittany Maynard, I believe her intensely personal experience and religious beliefs are not enough to restrict those of any other American walking that difficult road. 

We all must face death but we all deserve the right to face it on our own terms. 

What are your thoughts on Brittany Maynard and death with dignity?

P.S. My further thoughts on Grief and the Choices We Make.