Brittany Maynard suffers from an inoperable brain tumor which doctors expect to claim her life within months. In the face of a costly and painful defeat, Maynard has chosen to end her life. She moved to Oregon in order to legally seek physician assisted suicide.
Writing at The Blaze, Matt Walsh took issue with the praise and support which Maynard’s plan has garnered on social media. Specifically, he objected to the sentiment that we each own our lives and may therefore end them if we choose:
We are given life, we take part in life, we participate in life, but we do not own our lives. We can’t take possession of our lives like a two-year-old grabbing a toy from his friend and shouting ‘Mine!’ Our lives are bigger than that, thank God. Your life is not some incidental occurrence, or an accidental mutation, or a meaningless cause in a long string of meaningless effects.
Now, I admit, if we are nothing and we came from nothing and will return to nothing, then I suppose suicide makes some sort of sense. It returns the body to our natural state of nothingness. It brings us home into the abyss, where there is no self, no reason, no existence. But most people don’t think that. Most of us are not radical nihilists. Even Brittany Maynard is not, which is why she says she will die and go on to ‘whatever is next.’ She knows, deep down, that there is another dimension to this reality of ours, a deeper significance beneath the surface of everything. She knows, like I believe we all know, that we’re woven into the tapestry of creation — we play a role that we don’t fully understand, our decisions have ramifications that we can’t comprehend, and our lives have a meaning beyond whatever we find in it.
So if God reached out from the depths of eternity to hand us this life of ours, how can we think it acceptable — or worse, meritable — to throw it out before our time is finished?
Inevitably, that’s what this conversation comes down to. The old questions. The oldest questions. What is life? Why are we here? What’s the point of it all?
If you celebrate suicide, then you have answered these questions: life is nothingness, we are here for no reasons, and there is no point.
If you answer differently, then you must come to the conclusion that life has inherent value. That’s the concept that so many people struggle with nowadays. They scratch their heads and wonder why some of us kooky Christians get so upset about things like abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research. For some reason they won’t listen when we try to tell them: life has value. It is a thing of value. It is worth something. It is worth something beyond our feelings about it, beyond circumstance, beyond context, beyond sickness, beyond development, beyond age. LIFE HAS VALUE.
This isn’t just a Christian concept. It is the concept on which western civilization rests. Every noble ideal — justice, fairness, equity, compassion, charity — all of it, all of it, is grounded in the notion that life, human life, has intrinsic value. Not value according to its usefulness, or value according to convenience, or value according to how enjoyable it is. Value. Life is valuable because it is life. If you deny this, then you deny everything. There is no reason for justice, fairness, equity, compassion, or charity if human life has no value, or merely a value contingent upon whatever parameters we’ve arbitrarily assigned. There can be no justification even for your ‘human rights’ if we are all commodities whose stocks fall or rise like something that can be bought, sold, and traded.
Walsh presents a compelling case. It’s also a dangerous one. He conflates two spheres of human concern, religion and public policy, which have no business interfering with each other.
Consider the implications. Walsh says that life has “inherent value.” The question emerges: to whom? Value does not exist inherently. A thing has value only in reference to someone in particular. So who is the person Walsh evokes when he says that life has “inherent value?”
Clearly, he’s not talking about Brittany Maynard. She wants to end her life. Walsh appears to be saying that Maynard’s life has value to God. Life is God’s loan to Brittany. Therefore, it has value regardless of a circumstance like terminal illness, and regardless of her own assessment.
As a Christian, I more or less agree with that. If the scope of Walsh’s essay were limited to theology and doctrine, we would be in sync. However, by evoking concerns such as justice and equity, Walsh expands his scope to include the law. He goes so far as to claim that our rights as individuals rely upon the religious assertion of “inherent value.”
But if that proves true, if our rights bear no justification without reference to God, then we end up needing some form of theocracy to guarantee those rights. And since God has not yet descended to establish his direct government over Earth, any intervening theocracy will manifest as those in power claiming ownership over those out of power, appealing to scripture as the source of their authority.
Man’s government should deal only with man’s relationship to man, not man’s relationship to God. That’s a prerequisite of liberty. Otherwise, you end up with the incestuous mingling of church and state which characterized the Dark Ages. If God gave us life, He gave it to us as individuals. Nothing about the process granted our neighbor a claim over us. Government ought to reflect that by treating each individual as the owner of his or her life. The only alternative is, to some degree or another, treating people as slaves.
Brittany Maynard’s decision may be sacrilegious. It may be, as Walsh argues, an act of cowardice. It may be an affront to Almighty God. But none of that means it should be illegal. We can judge an act as wrong without forbidding it under the law. Indeed, that’s an essential characteristic of a free society.
Walsh claims that no justification can be provided for rights without founding it upon life’s “inherent value.” Thankfully, that’s not true. Our individual rights are discerned objectively, without reference to God. Our life stands as our chief measure of value, and that life requires rational action unencumbered by the initiation of force by others. To say we have rights is to say we live free from force. To delineate our rights is to list the innumerable ways in which that freedom manifests.
When we think of our lives, we don’t just think of being alive. We think of thriving, of dreaming, of pursuing and achieving. We think of enjoyment. Certainly, pain and difficulty pepper our existence. But they should not become our dominant experience. When they do, when the prospect of continued life reduces to constant pain and futile difficulty, when the body becomes a torture chamber, should we then be forced to endure it?
Beyond this issue, if we’re going to base public policy on life’s “inherent value,” aren’t the progressives right about everything? Doesn’t someone else’s hunger place a claim upon my labor? Doesn’t my diet and exercise need to be regulated? Why would we ban suicide but allow binge drinking and gluttony? Aren’t those just suicide by other means? Without basing our claim to rights upon objective principle, as opposed to a religious claim, we end up drawing the line arbitrarily.
(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here. 17:57 minutes long; 17.29 MB file size. Right click here to download this show to your hard drive. Subscribe through iTunes or RSS feed.)