Death With Dignity?

by Frederica Mathewes-Green

Oregon has become the first US state to give doctors permission toprescribe poisonous drugs in order to kill dying patients. In fact,according to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Oregon is”the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize assisted suicide bypopular vote.” Oregon was a well-chosen test site; it has the lowestchurch attendance in the nation, and pro-euthanasia messages playedon the bias against pro-life Catholic leadership (it’s been said that”Anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the elite class.”)

The lines don’t split precisely between Christians and non-Christians, however. Many Christians feel an innate revulsion for legalized killingof the sick, but some do not. It’s human nature to feel panic at the thought of dying in misery,and to long to circumvent the possibility.

There are really two concerns here. One is the awful specter of dying out-of-control, of endingone’s days voiceless, drooling, in a humiliating tableau of tubes and soiled sheets. No onewants to go through such embarrassment. We want to die with dignity.

The other fear is of dying in someone else’s control, of missing God’s timing and ending up asemi-cadaver irrigated by pumps, while loved ones battle a faceless bureaucracy. This is areasonable desire for a natural death, much like a pregnant woman’s desire for a natural birth.The difficulty is that the horror stories often begin with a gamble that intervention would bring healing, and only if one could predict the future would these decisions be easy. In these toughsituations it’s ethical to either accept or refuse treatment, but not to refuse care: basic food andwater. Nor is it right to kill swiftly rather than take a chance on “undignified” death.

The more I thought about these fears, the more the word “dignity” began to disturb me. A fewyears ago, Brown University professor Felicia Ackerman published an essay titled “NoThanks, I Don’t Want to Die with Dignity.” In it Ackerman questioned several popular “lines”about death, finding in such noble protestations as “I fear being a burden to my loved ones” asubtle pressure on the dying to, well, hurry up and die. She concludes, “The notion that terminally ill people should be… ready to bow out gracefully as soon as they become burdensome, hardly serves their interests. It serves the interests of those who want sick people to be as little trouble and expense as possible.”

About the “D word” she says, “Personally, I’ve always considered dignified people stuffedshirts. So I can’t help doubting that a fatal illness would suddenly make me find dignity more precious than life.”

A Christian worldview can build on this perception. Where indeed did we get the idea thatdignity is better than life? Were we ever promised in Scripture that we can die, or do anythingelse, with dignity? Is God so mindful of our pride?

Clinging to rags of dignity can make us look more absurd. In “Singing in the Rain,” Gene Kelly intones grandly, “I’ve had one motto which I’ve always lived by: ‘Dignity, alwaysdignity.’” While his character recounts the fictitious story of a noble career in fine theater, the viewer sees reality: Kelly in a checked suit, strumming a ukelele and taking pratfalls. The joke’s on him: behind the posturing, he’s not dignified at all.

In the Lord’s plan, the joke could be on us. How dignified did Ezekiel look eating a scroll? Was Hosea’s dignity enhanced by being wed to a prostitute? A friend once contrasted his current trials with that of a different prophet: “Well, the Lord made Isaiah go naked for three years. I’m grateful at least that he hasn’t made me do that.” “Believe me,” I agreed, “a lot of us are grateful.”

We want our deaths to be free from pain, mess, embarrassment. But there is a long Christian tradition of “holy death,” that is, of allowing even a hard death to be a witness to God’s grace. We’re nowhere invited to ring down the curtain early to preserve our pride. How dignified did Jesus look on the way to the Cross? Spattered with blood and spit, despised and rejected, he carried his own instrument of torture up a hill. Was this a death with dignity?

Ironically, it was. The Latin root for dignity is dignus, which means worthy. The most worthydeath in history was shorn of all dignity. Yet it was the death that transformed death, changingit from a wall to a door.

It hardly matters if we cross that door with stately serenity, or get shoved through in a buffoonish pratfall. There are many things more to be feared in life — sin, for example — than a foolish death. Getting through that door is the thing; we do so trusting in his dignus, not our own.

Frederica Mathewes-Green is author of Facing East (Harper) and Real Choices (Conciliar Press). Withher husband Fr. Gregory, she is a co-founder of Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Maryland. She is a member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. In slightly different form, this essay was first published in World magazine.