BC Expert: Case of Brittany Maynard & Assisted Suicide
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Lisa Sowle Cahill is the J. Donald Monan, S.J., Professor of Theology at Boston College. She is past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Society of Christian Ethics. Cahill serves on boards of the Journal of Religious Ethics; the British journal Theology; the international journal Concilium; the Indian Catholic journal Asian Horizons; and the Public Religion Research Institute. She has written eight books including, Global Justice, Christology and Christian Ethics; Theological Bioethics: Participation, Justice and Change; Bioethics and the Common Good; Sex, Gender and Christian Ethics; and Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism and Just War Theory.
An Oregon woman with terminal brain cancer has checked the last item off of her bucket list – a trip to the Grand Canyon – and now seems ready to die with dignity under her own terms. Brittany Maynard had initially set November 1st as the day to end her life, just two days after her husband’s birthday, but now says when she ends her life is contingent on how she is feeling.
“It’s often the case that when people do have the power to end their own lives, and they know they have that as a back-up plan, they feel they have more control over the situation and therefore they don’t actually use the medication that they have,” says Boston College Monan Professor of Theology Lisa Sowle Cahill, Ph.D., a past president of the Society of Christian Ethics. “I think at a human level its very understandable – people are afraid of being in such an out of control and desperate situation and feeling that they have a little more control through the option of taking their own lives actually makes it more possible for them to go into the situation and work their way through it.”
The 29-year-old newlywed was diagnosed with the brain tumor in April and was given six months to live. When Maynard learned she would die painfully and slowly, she decided to move from her home in California to Oregon, which has a 'Death with Dignity Act', and the medication that will help end her life. The case raises interesting ethical and moral questions about life and death.
“If it becomes legally and medically acceptable for people to end their own lives, in cases of serious illness, will some people actually feel an obligation to do that? Or pressure to do that because they don’t want to be a burden on other people?,” wonders Cahill, a bioethicist who specializes in the ethics of death and dying. “Hypothetically, would a spouse end his or her own life because they didn’t want their spouse to go watch a slow and painful death? Would someone worry about being a financial burden to the family? Having an ethos of acceptability around physician assisted suicide might conceivably create pressure on some people to end their lives in such circumstances.”
While all Maynard wants is to die on her own terms, Cahill wonders what kind of ripple effect decisions like this will lead to.
“It’s not just about whether it is right or wrong for an individual to take their own life - in desperate cases such as this the Catholic Church would not say ‘It’s OK.’ Yet a lot of people would be understanding, even if they disagreed with her decision, and not be too judgmental about her as an individual,” says Cahill, author of eight books and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. “The bigger problem is, what kind of expectations does this create? And does it take away some of the expectations that society will provide the necessary medical services, social welfare support, help to the families, and all those things that help people who are genuinely suffering continue to live?"
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