Last Saturday, November 1, Brittany Maynard took her own life. She committed suicide as “the public face of the controversial right-to-die movement” by taking advantage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act and taking a fatal dose of prescribed barbiturates. Maynard had been diagnosed with a glioblastoma which, according to doctors, would end her life in a matter of months. Oregon is one of five states with provisions allowing citizens to use physician-assisted suicide The Supreme Court has ruled that physician-assisted suicide is not a constitutionally protected right, but has left it up to individual states whether to allow it.
The organization that created an initiative around Brittany Maynard is called Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group that works “to expand options at the end of life”1. The headline on the Web site for The Brittany Maynard Fund says: “To expand the death-with-dignity option to all.”
So dignity is what she was after in her pursuit of a particular kind of death. The interesting thing is that the fund’s Web site assesses Brittany as already having had a great deal of something like dignity while she was alive. The biographical portion of the site praises her high ideals, fearless traveling, compassion, equity, love for family, academic accomplishments, and choice in a husband.
In an ironic twist, the narrative on the site says that her dignity only grew when she chose to commit suicide. When she chose to end to all of the earthly activities that were so dignified, she became even more dignified. Furthermore, the narrative (on the very same Web site) suggests that if Brittany had chosen against suicide, she would’ve been just as dignified as she became in her allegedly courageous death (although presumably lacking a Web site to praise her dignity).
The Compassion & Choices group is using “dignity” to describe contradictory pursuits and decisions. Therefore, for them, dignity can only mean one thing: Autonomy. They have reduced dignity to the following thesis: “I do whatever I want.” This is secular humanism at its clearest and boldest.
Dignity in the Bible refers to honesty and integrity, not to autonomy. The biblical noun most closely akin to dignity in the present context refers to moral purity (see 1 Timothy 2:2; 1 Timothy 3:4, Titus 2:7). Notice that dignity is unrelated to whether one is experiencing pain or other physical troubles, or to whether a person is perceived as being a burden to family or society. The only way in which we can determine if suicide is dignified, given the biblical account of dignity, is to study what the Bible says about it.
Suicide is sinful and undignified, because God places inherent value in human life. Life is His gift (Acts 17:25; 1 Timothy 6:13) and it is not up to man to take human life, because it bears God’s image: “[N]o murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15; Genesis 9:6). Suicide is self-murder. God is Master over our bodies and we must use them to glorify Him, not to dispose of them as we wish (1 Corinthians 6:19). Wayne Jackson observes:
Every suicide mentioned in the Scriptures is cast in a negative light. There is no doubt that Judas Iscariot, who died by his own hand (Matthew 27:5), was lost (John 17:12; Acts 1:25). One thing is certain: there is no opportunity for conversion in the post-death world (Matthew 25:1-13; Hebrews 9:27).2
Sometimes suicide has been done irrationally and without responsibility (e.g., in cases where a chemically induced depression causes loss of judgment), yet sadly Brittany Maynard’s suicide was not such a case. By all accounts, she was perfectly in her right mind when she asked for help in bringing about her death and when she took the poison (this is precisely why she was, allegedly, so dignified).
Given that suicide is sinful and therefore undignified, the next question is whether physician-assisted suicide is sinful and undignified. Notice that it is always sinful to encourage someone else in his sin or to knowingly help someone to sin. Jeroboam is condemned because he “made Israel to sin” (1 Kings 14:16). Our influence must never lead someone to do what is against God; quite the opposite (Matthew 5:13-16; 1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Timothy 4:12). It is sinful to help someone to sin by suicide. Physicians sin if they provide such help.
People who want to end their own lives are generally capable of doing so. The question is whether the rest of us will encourage them to do what is right or not; whether we will aid them in committing suicide or not. May we “choose life” and encourage them to make the same godly choice (Deuteronomy 30:19).
“About,” Compassion & Choices, https://www.compassionandchoices.org/who-we-are/about/ (2014). ↩
“Take Two of These and Don’t Call Me in the Morning,” Christian Courier, https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/336-take-two-of-these-and-dont-call-me-in-the-morning, parenthetical items in orig. (2014). ↩