In modern America, personal independence is seen as a primary virtue. The point of parenthood is to raise children to be independent. Addiction is a matter of concern because it limits independence — that’s why we call it a “dependency issue.” We live our lives protecting our independence, which we cede only in exchange for a few greater goods. So it’s not surprising that many of us do not tolerate pain and suffering well, much less the slow march to death that degenerative disease often entails.
The path to death is marked by an increasing lack of independence — we become unable to live life according to our expectations, or to do even the minute daily tasks that we took for granted before. It is particularly troubling to watch a loved one make that march, and if we are honest, it’s often difficult for us to provide the care and support they need. Yet it is important to remember that every human life is marked by a balance of independence and dependence. None of us is ever absolutely free from depending on others.
[Other perspectives: Why are doctors afraid of the word “death”?]
Last year, Brittany Maynard became the most recognizable voice of the assisted-suicide movement. As a 29-year-old woman full of life and vitality, she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and moved to Oregon in order to “die with dignity,” as she and her supporters called it. She did not want to lose her independence; she did not want to be a burden to those she loved. Retired Episcopalian bishop Gene Robinson declared her choice to be a “remarkable and courageous example.”
But what does this example say about those who don’t or can’t make that choice? If the “courageous” are those who choose to die rather than to suffer or to become burdensome to others, what are those who don’t? If assisted suicide is about dying with dignity, what about the dignity of those who choose to die naturally, whose lives rely on the help of family or friends?
Do we lose something, as a people, when it not only becomes legal but also expected that those with terminal illness should “choose” to die? If the European experience tells us anything, it is that those expectations will inevitably come. As clinicians morally coerce patients to end their lives (or impose that choice themselves) they will say that such is the caring thing to do, to free the friends and family who would otherwise be bound by responsibility. Yet no one is an island. It’s okay to be dependent. And though it’s difficult, we each know we owe constancy to those who need us the most.
Like it or not, our country was founded on Christian principles that prize caring for the poor and those in need. What marks our great nation is not absolute freedom, but a freedom to care for others and to be cared for ourselves. Those who suffer and those who are dependent challenge us out of our selfishness. They remind us that the preciousness of life is not determined by ability but by an inherent dignity that cannot be taken away. There is no doubt that death and dying interrupt life, but we can be glad that they do because we need to be reminded that success is not all there is. Those whose lives are ending offer a testimony that life is more than independence and that the human spirit is greater than disease and disability.
This is a lesson that every family inevitably learns, but supporters of assisted suicide suggest that it is one we might bypass. Their mind-set suggests that the courage of dependence is something we need not cultivate. Yet who among us would want to live in a world where the vulnerable are unwelcome?
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