Guest post: The enslavement of those who are most in need of freedom

Originally a comment by Eric MacDonald on A bishop always knows better.

There are several things wrong with the bishop’s objection to Brittany Maynard’s choosing to die. First of all, the term ‘dignity’ is a highly contested one, but Ignacio plays on two completely separate and unrelated meanings of the word. In Roman Catholic theology (and I think this is a new use of the word, though I have not been able to establish this), ‘dignity’ refers simply to the “God-givenness” of life. It does not refer to dignity in the strict sense, which consists in a person’s feeling of respect for herself (given present circumstances), and the respect paid to her by others (as opposed to pity, for example).

Dignity, in the sense relevant to Brittany’s decision, is acting according to one’s own will and in accordance with one’s own sense of value as a person.

Catholics will say that human life itself has dignity, but this is a far cry from the individual’s sense of her own dignity. What Catholics mean, I take it, is value, and they think of the value of life as infinite. However, someone in Brittany’s situation cannot feel that what the future holds (especially in the case of a brain tumour, than which there is perhaps no more excruciatingly painful way to die) will be characterised by dignity in the personal sense, however much Ignacio might hold a life characterised by unbearable pain to have infinite value.

Besides, how he supposes that Brittany would have been able to carry out the church’s mission at the point of direst pain is simply beyond me. I have sat and watched helplessly a patient with brain cancer die. Her last hour was one long, uninterrupted scream, the doctor standing by meanwhile saying defensively that there was nothing he could do. How someone in that situation is supposed to carry out a mission to others in that condition is simply beyond me, and Ignacio does not explain, because he can’t. These are rote proclamations based on the church’s dogma, and do not reflect the actual situation of people in such conditions.

I think the term ‘dignity in dying’ is an appropriate one, for most people’s deaths are not dignified. In my life as a priest I saw only one person die with what I could describe as dignity. The rest simply crumbled away into pain and a final struggle for air, or continuous vomiting. How aware they were I did not know, but their lack of dignity was the most striking thing about their deaths. Many relatives and loved ones stay away because they “didn’t want to remember [their loved one] in such distress.” They wanted to remember them as the people they really were, people with dignity, acting from their own centre, and in accordance with their own desires and values. It is a scandal that the church cannot see beyond the repetition of its dogma, rather than consider with compassion what might be the best way for a person to die, given their own choice in the matter. Forcing someone to die in a manner not of their own choosing is slavery (as Montaigne aptly said). It is interesting to see that the church still maintains this residual commitment to the enslavement of those who are most in need of freedom.


  1. Chris Walker says

    A very insightful post. My father died from brain cancer. In his last days he was pretty well drugged up most of the time. When he wasn’t, the only thing he was able to say consistently was “Ow.” I can still feel vividly the devastating realization that the man with whom I had so many intellectually enthralling conversations had deteriorated to the point that pain was essentially his whole world. There was certainly nothing dignified about it and I wouldn’t wish that situation onto anyone. The fact that the Catholic church maintains that “suffering during the last moments of life, has a special place in God’s saving plan” just baffles me.

  2. karmacat says

    One could argue with the bishop that if god wanted us to suffer he wouldn’t have put poppy fields on earth. Of course, every doctor knows if you give enough morphine, it will kill the patient. But I can’t imagine watching a patient suffer that much without giving morphine no matter the risks

  3. Eric MacDonald says

    Chris, I sympathise with you. It must have been intolerable seeing your father reduced to little more than a pain. That was my only experience of being with someone with brain cancer when they died, but it is seared into my mind still. The image will never leave me. No doubt Brittany Maynard was honestly told what would happen. Who would not wish to avoid such a desperate end (given the knowledge and the means)? The trouble is that very few people are actually told how their dying will progress. It’s a bit more common nowadays, but it is very hard for a doctor to tell you exactly what will happen to you as you die (as they are able to do in more and more cases). Paliative care physicians are the worst, because they know all too well how many hospice patients suffer unendurably, and yet they are often the ones (not always, thank goodness) who stand in the way of legalising assisted dying, like Baroness Finlay in England (or Wales) — one of the most outrageous opponents of assisted dying in the British House of Lords.

  4. mildlymagnificent says

    Once again, nuns can show the way where bishops refuse to even acknowledge the path is there. Our best known hospice here is run by an order of nuns. When you enter, knowing that you’re going to die, they tell you they’ll help you in any way they can. (Meaning – they can’t offer active, intentional euthanasia.) If you want to avoid the worst of the pain and the distress that goes with it, they offer ‘oblivion’ for as long as it’s needed until you die. If you want to try and stay conscious and alert for some reason – the impending birth of a grandchild or whatever – they’ll help you with that ambition too. When you change your mind about it, oblivion is always available.

    So instead of saying goodbye to your family and taking some action that results in death straight away, you say goodbye to your friends and family because you’re going to sleep/coma. And the hospice promises that from that point on, you’ll feel nothing and there’ll be no pain or screams or moans to distress your family.

  5. estraven says

    My mother-in-law was in hospice care for just a very few days before she died. We were called and told she’d been in extreme discomfort and we rushed to the care facility. The hospice nurse told us to say our goodbyes if we wanted her to be given painkillers–I forget the name of the drug but we looked it up on the Internet. Many on the Internet said that they suspected this drug or drug dosage had hastened the death of their loved one. We fervently hoped this would be the case, as she had been crying out in pain and calling for her husband, who had died years previously. I suspect that some caregivers know that the drug will hasten the death and that they are compassionate enough to be the means of providing that final mercy.

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