Brittany Maynard & ‘Right to Die’: Who gets to choose?

THIS Monday, as I was skimming through my Facebook feed, I read: “Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love”.

Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old American diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, died on Saturday night and wrote her final message :

 “Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love. Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me … but would have taken so much more.

The world is a beautiful place, travel has been my greatest teacher, my close friends and folks are the greatest givers. I even have a ring of support around my bed as I type. … Goodbye world. Spread good energy. Pay it forward!”

Doctors had given Brittany six months to live and soon after, she announced her intention to use her ‘right to die’ and moved to Oregon to undergo physician-assisted suicide under the state’s Death With Dignity Act. 

 In an interview with People magazine last month, she said: 

For people to argue against this choice for sick people really seems evil to me. They try to mix it up with suicide and that’s really unfair, because there’s not a single part of me that wants to die. But I am dying. My glioblastoma is going to kill me and that’s out of my control. I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. So being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.”

The fear of death and dying, our vulnerability and helplessness in the face of suffering is inherent in us all, but is opting out of life our only choice? 

Is our illusion of control so complete, ‘I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul’, that we can’t conceive of, much less submit , to a power above our own Who controls our life and death, our tears and laughter?

Among the people who wrote to Brittany asking her to reconsider her choice, was Kara Tippetts,  a 36-year-old Christian cancer sufferer, mother of four young children and author of The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard, who said: 

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. 

I pray they  [my words] reach the multitudes that are looking at your story and believing the lie that suffering is a mistake, that dying isn’t to be braved, that choosing our death is the courageous story.

No – hastening death was never what God intended.”

As believers, these issues should concern us all.

The Islamic Code of Medical Ethics (Islamic Organization of Medical Sciences, Kuwait, 1981, p.65) states: “Mercy killing, like suicide, finds no support except in the atheistic way of thinking that believes that our life on this earth is followed by void. The claim of killing for painful hopeless illness is also refuted, for there is no human pain that cannot be largely conquered by medication or by suitable neurosurgery…”.

Brittany’s online video campaign with an end-of-life choice advocacy organization, to fight for expanding death with dignity laws in the US has garnered enormous public support . On news websites covering her death, comment after comment commends her for ‘graduating out of life’, for choosing a ‘graceful way to go’. 

In another similar story, last August a UK high court judge granted a mother’s request to stop giving life-sustaining hydration to her 12-year-old daughter, Nancy Fitzmaurice. In the ruling, the judge said, “The love, devotion, and competence of Nancy’s mother are apparent. Please, can you tell Nancy’s mother I have great admiration for her.” The parents were recently featured in a tabloid divulging details of her story in the hope that similar decisions could be made by parents and doctors, without requiring court intervention.

I find myself pained that so many people  choose to end their life out of sheer despair, without the awareness that this life is temporary anyway, that it is meant to be that way, and that an eternal life awaits in the Hereafter. 

How many people fall prey to the Satanic deception that leads people to disbelieve in a Merciful and Compassionate God, and choose an eternity of suffering instead, under the false belief that they are exercising free will?

The casual ease with which secular culture discusses  the physical aspects of death and dying — down to lethal cocktails, funeral music and tombstones — and shies away from discussing what happens to the spirit  and the life that awaits us under the presumption of being politically correct  and more respectful of others’ beliefs is strange, to say the least.

Until godlessness started dictating the tone of public discourse, the sanctity of human life was considered a basic value decreed by God and recognised and upheld by every religious community and legal system. 

In Judaism and Christianity, assisting in suicide and requesting such assistance is forbidden and considered a violation of the Bible (Leviticus 19:14). People who take their own life are buried in a separate part of a Jewish cemetery, and may not receive certain mourning rites. If they are accorded burial rights, it is under the assumption that they were not in their right mind when they attempted suicide, or they repented of the act before death occurred. The Roman Catholic Church considered suicide objectively a sin which violates the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” and did not accord a Catholic funeral mass and burial until recently to people who killed themselves.

Conservative Protestants also consider suicide a sin since it involves self-murder, and is the same as if the person murdered another human being.  Within the Orthodox Tradition  as well, suicide is considered a rejection of God’s gift of physical life, a failure of stewardship, an act of despair, and a transgression of the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). 

Even in the Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism), generally, committing suicide is considered a violation of the code of  non-violence (ahimsa) and therefore equally sinful as murdering another human being. 

Contrary to what is portrayed in the popular press, Islamic legislation does not have this cavalier approach to taking life. It defines the conditions under which taking life is permissible in war and peace with rigorous prerequisites and precautions to minimize the loss of life.

The Qur’an says: “Do not kill yourselves, surely Your Lord is most Merciful to you (4: 29 )

At other places, the Qur’an says: Take not life which Allah made sacred other than in the course of justice. (6:151 and 17:33). 

In fact, the verse of Qisas (even retaliation for a transgression) means: “And vested in the Qisas, there is life for you O people of wisdom, perhaps you will fear God.” (2:178-179) 

The concept of a life not worth living does not exist in Islam, nor is there any justification for taking life to escape suffering. The Qur’an promises those who patiently persevere that they will “truly receive a reward without measure”(39:10) and Muslims believe that any affliction that a believer goes through “even that of a prick of a thorn or more, God forgives his sins, and his wrongdoings are discarded as a tree sheds off its leaves.”  

In the right-to-die debate, believers are often cast as heartless dogmatists who belittle human suffering to prop up a principle or win an  argument by pro-choice activists. From where I stand, the exact opposite seems true. What can be more evil than to offer people an illusion of choice where none should exist?

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