The Right to "Die with Dignity"?

The subject of physician-assisted suicide may seem esoteric. After all, besides Washington state and Oregon, it isn’t yet a legal reality in the United States. Yet, consider the story of Robert Benjo, an 82-year-old man who killed his wife, Peggy, who was suffering from cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, by shooting her in 2008. The couple’s doctor, Humberto Dominguez, argues Benjo “did the best thing for her” and that Peggy had “lost the will to live” and “wanted to give up.”

Sadly, the Benjo story isn’t unique. Donna Cohen, a professor at the University of South Florida, reports that of the roughly 50,000 Americans who die from homicide or suicide each year, 1,500-2,500 are murder-suicides, and that “people age 55 and older appear to have higher murder-suicide rates than persons under age 55.” Furthermore, suicide is on the rise in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal. According to Lifenews.com: “The Oregon Public Health Division released the 2010 ‘Death With Dignity’ report and it found 59 reported deaths from the 96 lethal prescriptions that were written with an additional six deaths from lethal prescriptions written in previous years. With the exception of 2009, the number of people dying has gone up every year as has the number of lethal prescriptions written.”

These stories illustrate the  struggle and hard choices confronting those who suffer from terminal illness, and the helplessness felt by those who love them and have to watch as life slowly, painfully ebbs away. For many, death doesn’t come with the suddenness of a car wreck or a heart attack; it is the slow burn of multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s gradually robbing one of his or her memories and, eventually, motor skills. To be diagnosed with certain diseases, in many cases, is to be given a fate, a future filled with dependence, weakness and indignity. This is why proponents of assisted suicide parse their viewpoint in terms of autonomy.

Physician-assisted suicide provides a sense of control to the terminally ill by giving them the power to preempt the embarrassing and painful effects of physical degeneration. The decision to end one’s life is a bitter option that some find themselves forced into by the cruel reality of disease. After all, all things being equal, those who choose to end their lives would actually prefer to live, yet they would rather die than endure the suffering ahead of them—suffering that will culminate in their death regardless of what course they choose. Very often, people speak of the “quality” of their lives. Once again, we see autonomy acting as a value. The argument is basically that, when one’s subjective standard of a “life worth living” isn’t met, one reserves the right to live or die on his or her own terms, and because killing oneself is so imprecise, people have the right to a doctor’s expertise in killing themselves.

This was the reasoning on Cody Curtis, a woman featured in the documentary How to Die in Oregon. Curtis, who fought hard against a cancer called cholangiocarcinoma, declares: “I’m not going to die with the fluid oozing out of the pores of my legs. … I’m not going to lose my hair again. I’m not going to weigh 200 pounds again. I’m not going to be humiliated with losing control of my bodily functions again.”

One cannot help but feel deeply for Benjo and Curtis. Yet, as Christians, the issue must be informed by the Bible and Christian tradition. The argument I would make is that because Christ is the head of the human race, the paradigm example of human excellence, it follows we should not only live like Him, we should die like Him as well. In either case, we are, like Christ, bound by the sovereignty of a father whose agenda that, very often, doesn’t include comfort.

Christ found Himself face to face with His father’s agenda in the Incarnation. Christ lived with full knowledge He was on a mission that would culminate in unspeakable suffering of both body and soul. The anticipation comes to a head in the garden of Gethsemane, where Christ, hours from torture, embraced a suffering He didn’t ask for or deserve. In this way, Christ is not unlike the cancer patient. Granted, while we know with certainty Christ was sent to the cross by the father, we can’t say with certitude the origins of cancer. Nevertheless, what Christ models for us is a particular attitude toward suffering that we should carry with us.

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Christ suffered in the context of the father’s sovereign will. He suffered with an eye toward real and lasting hope, and with the knowledge that what He was enduring would glorify His father. Christ had the autonomy to call down angels to defend Him (Matthew 25: 53), but instead chose to bow His knee to a purpose higher than His. We see this same attitude in the life of Paul, who claimed to delight in suffering because it displayed the power of Christ in him (2nd Corinthians 12: 9-10). The Christian worldview offers a different set of values. We embrace God’s sovereignty over autonomy. We, having been adopted, are indeed not even our own anymore, which means our lives aren’t ours to give or take; we belong to God.

Eventually, Robert Benjo was given a suspended sentence of 15 years. Basically, he was given 13 years of probation and two years of what amounts to house arrest. After the trial, Benjo remarked: “I can’t rationalize it. But I have to live with it now.”

The Benjo and Curtis stories are heartbreaking. Though Benjo clearly committed murder, he isn’t some homicidal maniac roaming the streets in search of his next victim. He saw the woman he had raised a family with, broke bread with, laughed and mourned with in the midst of severe suffering, and he ended up doing the only thing he saw to do—indeed the thing she had asked him to do. Curtis is simply a woman who felt her body betray her. What makes both stories sad is the lack of hope. Like the apostles, their spirits were willing, but their flesh was weak.

Perhaps this lack of hope represents a vacuum the Church can and must fill. For, if the Resurrection is true, if Christ truly has been raised, then we clearly have all we need for the endurance Paul and the apostles displayed in the face of death. The question is, in the coming years, can we hold out the hope of Resurrection, defend it, live it out? In other words, are our spirits willing?

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