Death with Dignity? Assisted Suicide Is Not The Answer

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Sophie Caldecott
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By now, you’ve probably heard of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer who has become an advocate for assisted suicide. For a brief recap, Maynard penned a now-viral op-ed for CNN, detailing the painful degeneration she faces as someone with brain cancer, and her rationale for deciding to take her own life on November 1 of this year.

You know the slow and painful death Brittany describes wanting to avoid, the suffering she does not want to inflict on her family? She may as well be describing my family's story, in many ways. My father, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011, went through that slow and painful death; our family experienced that suffering.

I can’t deny that it is torture to look on the suffering face of a loved one and hold their hand as they stare into the eyes of death. I won't do injustice to the suffering Maynard, her family, and all those like them by suggesting otherwise. But living through a similar situation in all its grim reality has convinced me that assisted suicide is not the answer.

Like Maynard, the recommended treatments could only delay my father’s cancer, not reverse it. Though he was older, he was young enough that the rest of his body was able to, as she puts it “physically hang on for a long time.” In the end, he developed the morphine-resistant pain that she mentions. During his last few weeks, he suffered so much that we formed an unbroken relay by his bedside in the hospice, night and day.

The truth is that however accurately Maynard describes the horrors of a life ended by cancer, she has missed an important part of the picture. Despite his bleak diagnosis, there was never a good moment for my father to die. During his last years he suffered, yes, but he also wrote books, enjoyed a blissful family holiday in Italy, and danced on his daughter’s wedding day, among countless more mundane moments, lovely for all their simplicity.

In the end, when the doctor gave us the news that he had approximately 12 weeks left to live, we launched a viral Twitter campaign to request an advance copy of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As a lifelong comic book fan, he had been so disappointed not to be able to make it to the cinema, and the DVD release date would be too late. Marvel got in touch to arrange a special home screening of the film, and the stars of his favorite superhero films, along with hundreds of people from around the world, sent us pictures and messages of support. It was an extraordinary testament to the power of human empathy.

Assisted suicide laws generally apply to people with less than six months to live. When I think about the last six months or so of my father’s life, I remember the companionship we shared throughout my pregnancy and labor—my fatigue and impaired mobility mirroring his own. I remember the jokes we made about not having control over our bladders, and the consolation we gave each other over our fears of what lay ahead. But most of all, I remember the way his eyes widened as I placed his first grandchild in his arms, and the tenderness with which he watched her grow as he declined. I know with more certainty than I have ever known anything that if he were still here he would tell you it was worth living every last drop of life for those moments.

Since I last wrote about my father for VerilyI have learned not to idealize the process of dying. Maynard is right in one way: A life ended by cancer is full of anguish for everyone involved. However, there is no “good” way to lose someone you love, and death never comes to us on our own terms.

The motto of the hospice where my father died was “believing every moment matters,” evidence of the courage and compassion of palliative care at its best. Rather than cutting life short for fear of what is coming, we need to suffer with the terminally ill as long as it takes. When the morphine stops working, we must not rest until we find an alternative that does. The physical and emotional anguish of the person who turns to suicide has not been adequately addressed.

Was my father’s death lacking in dignity? If losing the ability to walk and eventually talk is undignified, then yes. If catheters and oxygen masks and sponge baths are undignified, maybe. These things are expressions of the body’s ultimate vulnerability, a total reliance on others. But to call vulnerability undignified is to allow ourselves to lose sight of the fact that there is beauty—and yes, dignity—even in extreme weakness, in the whole imperfect, messy, and glorious business of being alive.