I doubt that Maggie Karner rang in the new year thinking she was going to be asked to speak at a conference against assisted suicide. She probably didn’t foresee the suicide of Brittany Maynard or the very well-publicized media campaign that went along with it. She certainly didn’t expect to be diagnosed with a brain tumor. Yet there she was in front of me at the recent East Coast Conference Against Assisted Suicide, speaking quietly but without hesitation.
She’s as compelling a speaker in person as she is in her now-famous video message to Maynard, made in an unsuccessful attempt to dissuade Maynard from suicide. As conference host Alex Schadenberg said after her presentation, “Maggie is a gift for us.” That “us” goes far beyond the people who were in the room at the time.
“I’m no expert. Just me.”
Self-effacing but not shy, Karner began by advising her listeners at the conference, “I’m no expert. Just me.” She was diagnosed in April with glioblastoma, the same type of brain tumor that beset Brittany Maynard. She recorded her video message to Maynard with that common experience in mind. She found after her video went viral that her cancer was the one thing some news reporters found relevant in her message.
She described a recent interview she did via Skype with a news outlet in Bogota, Columbia. “It turned out to be an informal debate, and they didn’t tell me that. On the air with me was the communications director for Compassion and Choices [the pro-assisted-suicide group], who spoke Spanish, of course. I don’t. And a pro-euthanasia doctor from Miami, who also spoke Spanish. So I’m the only white gringo there who didn’t speak Spanish. One thing the producers and editors all mentioned was that they wanted to interview me because I had the same terminal brain cancer diagnosis [as Maynard], and apparently that made me qualified to speak on this topic of physician-assisted suicide. I guess they were looking for that emotional right hook as the media is wont to do.
“But that left me wondering, does that mean that anyone without a terminal diagnosis can’t express their opinion on assisted suicide? Even after all the TV interviews and YouTube hits on the video to Brittany, I still got lots and lots of tweets and comments that basically said ‘who are you to judge her?’ Even with my brain tumor qualifications. So I guess that’s what our post-modern society has left us now: if you have an opinion on something, apparently you are judging the people who have a different opinion, and [I should] just shut up.’ What happened to the great free American marketplace of ideas? What happens to vigorous scholarly debate with issues that affect our whole society? I guess you can only have an opinion on something now if you’ve lived through it, felt its wrath, or walked in its shoes. Because it’s all about feelings. If you have evidence on the positives or negatives of something, that apparently doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is how you feel about the issue and whether people like how you said it.”
“It’s a public policy issue … it’s a moral issue”
Maynard’s decision to commit suicide was made with the cooperation of the assisted-suicide advocacy group Compassion and Choices. “Which leads to the heartbreaking videos of Brittany, made by Compassion and Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society. Those were up-close glimpses into her personal agony and her suffering, and that contrasted of course with the beautiful young energetic newlywed she was just a year ago. Of course we want her to feel better. The message we’re getting is ‘Whatever she requests – after all, who are WE to turn her down? We shouldn’t judge.’
“But here’s the thing: it’s not just about Brittany. It’s not just about me. What about anyone else with a terminal illness or disability? It’s about all of us. Her videos took one person’s very real, very tragic life situation and tried to fit it into a narrative that applies to all of us. And that leads to that old saying that judging on the basis of the hard cases makes really bad law.
“This is a public policy issue and it deserves vigorous debate from ethicists and experts. It’s a public policy issue, just like Obamacare or the Keystone pipeline or any of the other things that are on the Hill now. And it’s a moral issue that affects what we choose to look like as a civilized society. If you’re a Christian like me, it’s also a huge spiritual issue directed by our Lord. But it doesn’t have to be a spiritual issue. There’s enough meat on the bones of this topic just as a social and policy issue that you could chew on it for years.”
Call it what it is
Karner doesn’t mince words about the dangers of short-circuiting public debate on assisted suicide. “Compassion and Choices apparently doesn’t want a reasoned public debate on this issue. They want people to react emotionally. Proponents of assisted suicide and euthanasia want to capitalize on emotions, and more importantly, they want to change our vocabulary. You’ll notice that Brittany refused to call what she did suicide. She didn’t like the baggage that came with the word ‘suicide’. She preferred to call it ‘death with dignity’,” as Karner indicated quotation marks around the term.
“But that’s just an illusion. We have to come to terms with what this really is – with the fact that assisted suicide, let’s call it what it is, affects others, and not just those close to the self-appointed victims. It affects especially the weak, the disabled, and the most vulnerable. Because how long will it be before the right to die quickly devolves into the duty to die? What does this mean for all who are elderly, or disabled, or just wondering if they’ve become a burden to the family?
“And let’s look just for a moment at what this does to the patient-doctor relationship. I was diagnosed last April, and to this day my doctor has not given me any kind of a timeline for my disease, on purpose. He wants me to live without adding a timeline which would essentially be a monkey on my back to add to the constant stress that the cancer diagnosis brings. We all have a timeline, really. Everybody’s got a timeline. We’re all gonna die someday. My doctor made sure I knew the general definitions of glioblastoma, the high recurrence rate and the low survivability, and he looked at me seriously and told me to do the things now that I enjoy or that are meaningful to me. But he refuses to speculate on me, because I’m an individual, and every person deserves the right to fight.”
Beyond cultural and medical concerns looms the specter of cost control for patients with difficult prognoses.“What if our fragile overburdened health care system decides that [treatment] is not in our society’s or the third-party payers’ interest? That to be more economically expedient, they recommend suicide pills instead of chemo? You see that already happening. That’s why our country has to continue to expand efforts to increase the availability of home care early, not just as an afterthought. Early access to hospices and palliative care, and a continued expectation that even when we are at our weakest, the strong arm of the state will be there to protect and defend our choice for care – not to offer suicide as a false choice of empowerment or a false sense of control or illusion of control.”
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t have an opinion”
Karner’s cancer diagnosis brought her attention this year, but she insists that her health isn’t what gives point to her message. “My whole point today is that I have a brain tumor. So what? That doesn’t qualify me any more than you to speak about the danger to our society that assisted suicide poses.
“Don’t you ever let anyone tell you that you can’t have an opinion on this because you haven’t been through it. Today, you’re learning the information you need to have an opinion and to express it, without all the emotional baggage that Compassion and Choices wants to interject into it. This topic isn’t just for folks with an unfortunate diagnosis to decide. Not just people like me and Brittany. This topic of assisted suicide needs to be about every single one of us. It’s about all of us in our society. It’s about you.”