Ziegler's daughter is Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old Southern Californian and St. John's School alumna who moved to Oregon this year to take advantage of its right-to-die law. Diagnosed on Jan. 1 with terminal brain cancer, not long after her marriage to Dan Diaz, Maynard announced that she would end her life once her symptoms, including seizures and searing headaches, become unbearable. While she has chosen Saturday, Nov. 1, she reserved the right to delay her death depending on her illness's severity.
By going public with her decision and associating her name and story with Compassion & Choices, a right-to-die advocacy group, Maynard has sparked a heart-wrenching debate in churches, workplaces, homes, and the media about doctor-assisted suicide as a last-ditch expedient for those who are hopelessly ill. It is legal in four states besides Oregon: Vermont, Washington, Montana, and New Mexico.
At St. John's, we're praying for Brittany, giving thanks for her courage, and faithfully joining in the national conversation she has inspired. (As one of my colleagues pointed out, no less an authority than Anderson Cooper of “60 Minutes” erred in his pronunciation of our famous alumna's name. For the record, she is Brittany me-NARD.)
Cindy Campbell, our middle school principal, is preparing for the far more difficult work of consoling a grieving mother, should Brittany die as she has planned. Cindy has known Deb and Brittany since 1987, when they and the Campbells became neighbors in a development near St. John's called Robinson Ranch.
Ziegler soon distinguished herself at St. John's as a superstar middle school science teacher. Colleagues say she was ahead of her time. Under the leadership of head of school Michael Pratt, in 2014 St. John's adopted the innovative, interdisciplinary STEAM curriculum, combining science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. “In a way, Deb was doing STEAM before STEAM,” said Sheryll Grogan, a St. John's faculty member who worked closely with Ziegler.
Among her innovations was the Invention Convention. Campbell said that Brittany invented a device users could wear while applying hair spray so it wouldn't get in their eyes. “If she'd patented it, it may well have found a market,” Cindy says.
A straight-A student at St. John's, Brittany graduated from Santa Margarita Catholic High School and from UC Berkeley. After Deb Ziegler left the St. John's faculty in the early 1990s, she and Cindy Campbell remained friends. In 2009, she consoled Cindy over the death of her and Gregg's eldest son, Joey. Cindy never wanted or expected to have the opportunity to repay Deb's kindness. Now both mother and daughter have asked her to do just that.
“She has reached out to me as a mother who has lost a child and asked that I help her with this,” Cindy said last week. “Brittany has also asked me to be there to help her mother with the reality that Deb will be living without her.”
I thought of asking Cindy what she thought about Brittany's decision to end her life. I didn't, and I won't. It would be logical enough journalistically, but it seemed inappropriate pastorally, like an invasion of a friendship's privacy and a distraction from the ministry of love and support Cindy will undertake regardless of her feelings about Brittany's choice.
We have been talking openly about it at St. John's Church, however, both informally in the hallways and in two ministry settings: our monthly support group for caregivers, and our periodic “Sunday News” current events discussion.
Our members' reactions tend to match the national mood. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in the spring of 2013, 49% of U.S. adults disapprove of physician-assisted suicide and 47% approve. In contrast to other social and cultural issues, such as same-gender marriage, the numbers are relatively unaffected by age. Fifty-four percent of those ages 18 - 29 and 56% of those over 65 disapprove. The most amendable cohort is people ages 50 - 64, of whom 44% disapprove and 51% approve.
|Brittany and Dan at their wedding last October|
Still, the issue entails considerable tension and even paradox, and we've touched on these in our parish conversations. What if doctors can reliably promise patients that palliative care will protect them from the worst ravages of disease while giving them even a little more time to enjoy sunsets, Mozart, the Rolling Stones, and fellowship with loved ones and friends? Should those suffering hopelessly from the agony of schizophrenia or depression be empowered to end their lives? Are physicians being asked to compromise their often praiseworthy and even vital impulses to extend life?
On the other side of the debate, some ethicists argue that human freedom includes the right to decide whether to live or die. Besides, surely no one of right mind wants to die when the possibility and anticipation exist of some decent quality of life. Right-to-die states take special care to ensure that doctors not collaborate with patients who aren't thinking clearly or rationally.
Our church is debating these questions nationally as well as locally. In a 1994 resolution in Indianapolis, General Convention said that while euthanasia was “morally wrong and unacceptable,” doctors should be allowed to administer extra painkillers, even if it hastens death, as long as they intend to relieve pain rather than end life.
Addressing the related issue of physician-assisted suicide, our church's End-of-Life Task Force, reporting to 2000's General Convention in Denver, recommended that the church oppose the practice because it “sets ourselves up as gods in the place of God,” marginalizes the role of caregivers at the end of life, erodes our faith in physicians, and risks tempting sufferers to think they should die to avoid burdening others. Reflecting on the task force's work and acknowledging her own ambivalence and discernment, Bishop Suffragan Mary Douglas Glasspool of the Diocese of Los Angeles wrote last week to colleagues and friends that Brittany Maynard's experience gives communities of faith an opportunity to discern God's will - “not just an opportunity, but an obligation.”
At St. John's, we agree. As a first step, we are renewing our efforts to make sure our members have looked ahead to their own and their loved ones' last months, days, and hours. For instance, everyone should study and fill out "Five Wishes," an easy-to-use anthology of end-of-life instruction forms first published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and now available in 26 languages, thanks to a grant from the United Health Foundation. Each of us should also fill out a Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) form; California's is available here.
We'll do this good, necessary, difficult work in thanksgiving for own Brittany Maynard, who, with her devoted mother, excelled at science and now calls society to be relentlessly discerning about its end-of-life ethics even as it continues to advance in life-saving medical technology.
This article was originally published by The Episcopal News at the Diocese of Los Angeles.