Catastrophes come in all shapes and sizes. It came to Joni Eareckson one day on July 30, 1967. While swimming in Chesapeake Bay, young Joni dove into the water, misjudging its depth. That water was shallower than she thought, and she struck her head, suffering a catastrophic fracture to her back and paralyzing her from the shoulders down. She was just seventeen years old. She then spent two long years in rehabilitation, during which she experienced anger, depression, and suicidal thoughts. She remains in a wheel-chair to this day.
Catastrophe came to Brittany Maynard on New Year’s Day of this year. Shortly after her marriage on 2013, she began to have extremely painful headaches. On this January 1 doctors gave her the news that she had terminal brain cancer. They estimated she had about six months to live. She was just twenty-nine years old.
It is difficult to compare catastrophes. The cases of the two women are not at all the same. Joni suffered her disaster when she was 17; Brittany when she was 29. Joni had to endure a life-time of paralysis which to date has stretched to 47 years; Brittany was facing an imminent early death. It is senseless to ask which woman had the most to bear. Which is worse: an early death or a life-time of suffering? The question, of course, makes no sense.
The reactions however of the two women, though starkly different, are both very instructive. When Joni first faced catastrophe, despite suicidal thoughts and wavering faith, she ultimately clung to God and embraced it as His will. She offered her life afresh to Him, learning to paint with her mouth, and speaking to others about serving God whatever one’s lot in life. She created a legacy in 2006 by establishing the “Joni and Friends International Disability Center” to help people cope with their disabilities.
Brittany’s reaction was very different. She decided that she would not only end her life early and on her own terms, but began to campaign for the legalization of the euthanasia she found in Oregon which allowed her to take her own life. Her legacy can be found in her online website, “Compassion & Choices”, which serves to promote legalized euthanasia.
Given these differences, it is interesting that their lives intersected at one place. On October 15, Joni published a piece in the Religion News Service, speaking about Brittany’s then-impending and very public intention to kill herself. In that piece Joni wrote, “I understand she [Brittany] may be in great pain, and her treatment options are limited and have their own devastating side effects, but I believe Brittany is missing a critical factor in her formula for death: God. The journey Brittany — for that matter, all of us — will undertake on the other side of death is the most important venture on which we will ever embark. So it must not be disregarded or brushed aside without thinking twice about the God who alone has the right to decide when life should begin and end…If I could spend a few moments with Brittany before she swallows that prescription she has already filled, I would tell her how I have felt the love of Jesus strengthen and comfort me through my own cancer, chronic pain and quadriplegia. I would tell her that the saddest thing of all would be for her to wake up on the other side of her tombstone only to face a grim, joyless existence not only without life, but without God.” I am not aware if Brittany ever saw the piece, or made any response.
It looks as if North American society is preparing to side with Brittany and not with Joni. In the People Magazine newsbyte which featured an interview with Brittany, gentle piano music was already playing in the background, subtly manipulating the sympathy of the listener. A “social medical expert” (a what?) writing for the Washington Post was quoted as saying, “People are increasingly asking why anyone—the state, the medical profession, religious leaders—would presume to tell someone else that they must continue to die by inches, against their will.” It never seemed to occur to the social medical expert that everyone on earth is “dying by inches”, whether they have terminal cancer or not. Nonetheless, daring to suggest that the choice for self-destruction is an immoral one is denounced as “presumption”. That must be right. A social medical expert has said so. And Brittany herself told People Magazine that “for people to argue against this choice for sick people really seems evil to me”. The battle lines for the disputants in this debate are being clearly drawn, with Brittany denouncing the opposing side as “evil”.
Faced with the news of Brittany’s suicide on November 1, our first response should be compassion, and our first duty, prayer. But our compassion for poor Brittany must not be allowed to skew our judgment. We leave Brittany to the judgment of God, as we leave all His children. But as we consider whether self-destruction is a human right or a tragic misstep, I’m standing with Joni.