Brittany Maynard didn’t commit suicide

What we can learn from 9-11's "Falling Man"

Nov 12, 2014 by

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The past few week or so has been filled with news that terminally ill 29-year-old, Brittany Maynard, ended her life with medication prescribed by her physician. She did so under legal physician-assisted suicide provisions in the state of Oregon. Had Maynard not taken the medication, she would not have lived much longer, and the final moments of her life would likely have been painfully debilitating, as her brain cancer took over.

In the weeks leading up to her death, Maynard succeeded in not only completing her “bucket list” but also in sparking a national discussion on “death with dignity,” or physician-assisted suicide.

Admittedly, I thought the matter was settled in my mind before Maynard’s story became a daily topic. Until Brittany, I was absolutely, positively against the idea that physician-assisted suicide should be legal. However — and here’s another of Brittany’s accomplishments these past few weeks — I don’t feel the way I did a few weeks ago.

Part of my shift has been because of the discussion and reasoning that came from Brittany herself, and part has been from some of the judgmental condemnation I’ve seen of Brittany online — judgmental attitudes that caused me to rethink my association with that side of the issue.

The_Falling_ManThe real shift in my thinking, though, came from sitting in my rocking chair next to my wood stove late in the evening, watching a program about iconic photography from the terrorist attacks of 9-11.

One of the most recognized images from the terrorist attacks is an image that has been called “The Falling Man” by Richard Drew, and I’m sure you probably recognize it. The image is of an unidentified man who was trapped on one of the upper levels of the Trade Center, and ultimately made the decision to jump to his death instead of being burned alive or suffocated by smoke.

I can’t imagine making that choice. I’ve tried, but I can’t.

There are no exact numbers, but some have estimated that upwards of 200 people made that difficult choice — choosing to jump instead of dying by fire or smoke.

On one hand, one could say these people took their own lives — that they committed suicide — but that wouldn’t really be fair, would it? New York City officials didn’t think so either, and had their deaths classified as homicide by blunt force trauma instead of suicide. A spokesman for the New York City medical examiners office stated:
“Jumping indicates a choice, and these people did not have that choice. That is why the deaths were ruled homicide, because the actions of other people caused them to die. . . . ”

The Falling Man, and others like him, didn’t have a real choice to live or die — they only had a choice in which way they died: smoke and fire, or by falling. For their children to have to walk through life saying, “my dad committed suicide” is less than fair and completely untrue. They didn’t choose to die, the very definition of suicide, they just chose how they died.

This is precisely why I’m losing my patience with my fellow Christians who are condemning Brittany Maynard for her decision to take the pills her doctor prescribed her. Brittany didn’t wake up one morning and say “I hate my life and I’m going to kill myself,” just like those who jumped on 9-11 didn’t step up to the ledge and jump because they were in debt or trapped in a bad marriage.

It seems disingenuous to force someone to choose between two ways of dying and then turn on them in judgement for picking the least painful of the two options.

Like the 9-11 jumpers, Brittany didn’t have a choice in dying, she only had a choice in how she died. You see, there are people like Brittany — terminally ill with imminent death looming — who are essentially trapped in a burning building from which there is no way of escaping with their lives. For some of these people, the idea of being burned alive or having to inhale smoke until death overcomes them becomes less appealing than stepping up to the ledge and accepting a quicker, less painful fate.

In all the years since 9-11, I’ve never once heard a Christian speak up in judgement and condemnation over the 9-11 jumpers. I’ve never heard someone say they sinned because they “hastened death instead of accepting God’s timing.” I’ve never heard anyone say that failing to condemn their choice is a “slippery slope that could send the message that suicide is OK.” All I’ve ever heard about the 9-11 jumpers is how difficult their choice must have been, and how sad it is that their lives were taken by terrorism.

Why then, should we say those things about Brittany — or those who choose to die more quickly and less painfully in response to a terminal disease, a death sentence that becomes their burning building? It’s not a choice to die. It’s just a choice to pick the most painless way to die.

Christians should be the people who are the least judgmental and the most compassionate, the ones who recognize the truth. While the 9-11 jumpers didn’t commit suicide, Brittany Maynard didn’t, either.

She died because of terminal cancer, and that is very, very sad.

Ben Corey, a speaker and minister from Auburn, Maine, is the author of Undiluted. This first appeared on his blog, Formerly Fundie, where he discusses the intersection of faith and culture from a progressive/emergent/neo-anabaptist vantage point.

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  • Philip Haddad

    Christians should show love and compassion, and we should err on the side of life.

    With modern medical advances we have no idea what cures may be right around the corner. When someone decides to preemptively take their life, especially far in advance, how is that not the definition of suicide. The comparison to jumpers on 9-11 is a bit like comparing apples to oranges.

    There was no pre-mediation on the thoughts of those in the burning towers and there was no slick propaganda organization standing behind a decision to take their life and thereby encouraging those in similar circumstances to do the same.

    I don’t know what I would do in that situation, probably re-investigate marijuana & other substances :), and I am not condemning Brittany.

    This group and their ilk used the death of Brittany to accomplish their social agenda, and unfortunately it seems to be working as this poster indicates. The slippery slope argument may be used too much but I believe there is practical application in this instance. We can see the number of people taking their life in Oregon has continued to increase.

    Sometimes people will be intellectually crude and say we have no right to weigh in on something that we are not going through, forgetting that the person making that argument is normally not going through it as well and it is simply using a tactic to stifle debate.
    Therefore, I will end my remarks with the posting of a video entitled “A Letter to Brittany Maynard” from a lady suffering from the same condition.
    For life:

    • Jessica Kadie Barclay

      Hi Phil, I agree with you about “Christians should show love and compassion”, and I do think her death was used as a too, but I believe that’s what she intended. I question what “erring on the side of life” means in the practical sense? -JKB

    • Allen King

      As Christians we must err on the side of Grace and Mercy.

      • Philip Haddad

        No doubt, but without life there can not be grace and mercy. Life is a foundations item to be protected and treasured.

  • Conrad Hertzler

    I sincerely hope that this article does not reflect the viewpoint of this publication or of Mennonites in general. What a humanistic and fatalistic outlook on life! Yes, 9-11 was horrible, leaving countless people with a horrible choice. Yes, for Brittany the news that she had terminal cancer and that there was no hope for a cure was horrible news and it left her with agonizing decisions. And yes, Christians who have judged and condemned Brittany ought to be ashamed of themselves. However, I find Ben Cory’s reasoning justifying and supporting her actions to be disturbing. I don’t know Mr. Cory but the article footer says that he is a minister. Can Mr. Cory, as a minister of the Gospel, make a theological argument supporting suicide (yes, I still believe it was suicide)? Nowhere in this article does he mention God, our Creator, Healer, and Giver of Life. I grieve for Brittany because she obviously felt that it was her right and only logical course of action to end her own life before the cancer ran its course. Do we as Christians believe sincerely that God can and will use all seemingly tragic circumstances in our lives to bring glory to Himself. For me to say, “My life is mine and I will end it on my own terms” is a selfish and humanistic view on life. The Bible is clear that God formed us, gave us life and we are completely His. He has the right to give life and take life as He sees fit. Do we trust Him enough that we can cling on to his unfailing love and believe that whatever happens will bring glory to Him, no matter what is the outcome for us?

    There have been many people (we all probably know some) who have been diagnosed with terminal illness. But I am so thankful to say that I know people who have spent their last weeks and days on this earth living their lives with grace and complete trust in the God who gave them life. Their lives and deaths have served to point people to Jesus and I sincerely believe that all Christians should commit their lives to God in this way.

    Do I judge Brittany? Absolutely not. I don’t pretend that decisions regarding life and death are easy and always cut and dried. But I do grieve for her, others like her, and the author of this article.