Maggie Karner, RIP; campaigned against assisted suicide

Maggie Karner at 2014 East Coast Conference Against Assisted Suicide (photo by Ellen Kolb)
Maggie Karner at 2014 East Coast Conference Against Assisted Suicide (photo by Ellen Kolb)

Connecticut’s Maggie Karner died on September 25, almost a year and a half after being diagnosed with glioblastoma. She chose not to hasten her death. That wouldn’t be noteworthy, had another woman with the same kind of brain cancer not announced last year an intention to commit suicide. Karner’s videotaped reply –  “A Letter to Brittany Maynard” –  didn’t stop Maynard from carrying out her plan, but it found wide circulation (more than 400,000 online views to date) as a unique affirmation of life in the face of a deadly illness.

“I’m a strong woman, just like you. And I understand the horrible fear that you’re facing. Brain cancer sucks in a really big way. It’s a beast that lurks and prowls just waiting for a chance to pounce and take away more of our faculties. our everyday joys, and our very life. But you know what? Death sucks, too. It rips us from the people and the passions we love the most…. Please don’t let cancer get one more second of your life than it desires. No one is judging, but people are watching. I guess I’m yelling to you, Brittany, on your ledge: I’m asking you to stay with us as long as possible…. I know the predictions. I know what’s ahead for me and possibly for you. But we’re still here, aren’t we? We haven’t squeezed out every drop of life that’s in us yet….don’t leave us yet. Choose life for as long as we’ve got it.” 

It was my good fortune to meet Maggie Karner briefly last year, when she was a featured speaker at a pro-life conference in Connecticut. I wrote then about her call for fearless debate about assisted suicide.   I’m going to remember her as she was that day, speaking quietly and without hesitation.

“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?

“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.”


“It’s about you”: Maggie Karner urges fearless debate on assisted suicide

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.

Maggie Karner, speaking at 2014 East Coast Conference Against Assisted Suicide (E. Kolb photo)
Maggie Karner, speaking at 2014 East Coast Conference Against Assisted Suicide (E. Kolb photo)

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.”

 

 

 

Et Cetera: week ending 11/23/14

Yesterday’s East Coast Conference Against Assisted Suicide was a splendid event, and I’ll share more about it in upcoming posts. For this weekend’s collection of short items, though, I recommend you add these people and organizations to your social media feeds for ongoing information. This is not a comprehensive list of resources, but it should keep you busy for now.

Alex Schadenberg (courtesy EPC Facebook page)
Alex Schadenberg (courtesy EPC Facebook page)

The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, led by executive director Alex Schadenberg, has become an indispensable resource for anyone investigating the status of assisted suicide and euthanasia laws worldwide. Alex is based in Canada, but his work keeps him traveling to the United States and beyond. Follow the EPC blog at alexschadenberg.blogspot.ca, “like” EPC’s Facebook page, and follow @AlexSchadenberg and @EuthanasiaPC on Twitter.

The Family Institute of Connecticut’s involvement in the defeat of Connecticut’s assisted suicide bill this year was notable. Web site: www.ctfamily.org. Twitter: @FICaction.

Maggie Karner, maker of the best YouTube video we’ll see all year, is on Twitter @Karnerms.

Not Dead Yet  (or as the heading for their web site says, Not Dead Yet: The Resistance) is a disability rights group that frankly and rightly sees assisted suicide and euthanasia as tools of discrimination against people with disabilities. Web site: www.notdeadyet.org. John Kelly is NDY’s New England regional director, Boston-based, and his Twitter feed @JohnBrianKelly aggregates a number of news stories and blog posts about discrimination against people with disabilities.

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A few selections from this week’s news feed: Dave Andrusko from National Right to Life on Two women facing terminal brain disease, two profoundly different legacies …Margaret Dore, a Washington State elder law attorney who has traveled to New Hampshire to help fight assisted suicide bills here, takes note of an assisted suicide bill now being considered in New Jersey … New to Twitter, or simply looking for ways to convey your pro-life message on your social media accounts? American Life League has some suggestions …Abby Johnson answers the question she still gets about how she could stay at PP as long as she did.

May your preparations for Thanksgiving go smoothly!

“To life!” Maggie Karner appeals to suicide-minded Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard may or may not take her life soon, in a planned and deliberate manner, rather than endure life with cancer. She’s been publicizing her plans, with help from the old Hemlock Society that now goes by the more serene name “Compassion and Choices.”

Maggie Karner, a Connecticut woman living with the same kind of cancer, has written an open letter to Maynard. She reads it in this video. Share this far and wide. Maynard’s story has gone all kinds of viral – print, video, social media. Karner deserves no less.

(h/t Family Institute of Connecticut and Cornerstone Policy Research for bringing this to my attention.)