Imagine receiving a letter telling you that while your insurance company won’t pay for experimental drugs to combat your cancer, they’d be happy to cover lethal drugs to help you die. You want to try to live a little longer, but you're only offered funding to hasten death. This happened to Barbara Wagner, an Oregon woman dying of lung cancer, in 2008. Where assisted suicide is legal, as in Wagner’s home state, such letters are not anomalies.
Last fall, Brittany Maynard became the face of Oregon's assisted suicide provision, a law now being examined by others states as they consider legalizing physician assisted suicide. One of these states—California—recently revived a bill inspired by Maynard’s very public death. The bill’s coauthor hopes that by passing the legislation the state will finally ensure that “Californians have access to all the options when they are facing the end of life.”
Stephanie Packer, a thirty-two-year-old wife and mother with a terminal diagnosis of scleroderma, a chronic connective tissue disease, has made it her mission to oppose the bill. Packer’s website shares her powerful story, one which deserves a wide hearing. Speaking from her own experience of feeling like an imposition on her friends and family, she says, “terminally ill people need to know they’re valuable and worthwhile.” “I don't find dignity in taking my own life.”
The California bill was inspired by Maynard’s story; perhaps Packer’s story will encourage state lawmakers to reconsider. Where Maynard’s story promotes under the umbrella of “choice” the idea that some lives aren’t worth living, Packer sees that the manner in which she lives out her last days can be her way of loving her children, her husband, and her community. And Packer knows that the stakes are high:
When people are depressed and threatening to kill themselves, we don’t hand them a gun. We give them tools and the information they need to deal with their circumstance. And . . . we help people. That’s what we do with anybody that’s in that place in their life. And this bill is doing just the opposite. We’re giving them the gun.
For every Brittany Maynard there are many Stephanie Packers who know that “access to all the options” means the marginalization of the suffering. Death is not a choice—it’s a fact. But at this moment the Californian legislature does have a choice—it can tell those facing imminent death that their lives are valuable until the end, or it can abandon them to face their fears alone, as the looming specter of an insurance company offers them a lethal “freedom,” not love.
J. David Nolan is assistant editor at First Things.