dying right: a recommendation

It’s true, of course, that my being pro-life is part of the fabric of my Christian faith. At the same time, I tend not to wear the label ‘pro-life’ in a bright neon sign over my head. Not because I am ambivalent about abortion or the death penalty (that’s right: being pro-life means opposing the death penalty with equal vehemence), but because life and death issues are complicated, personal, and touch the deepest part of our soul.

Another reason I tend not to shout about pro-life issues is that the language in which such matters tend to be discussed centers on ‘rights’: right-to-life, right-to-die. As if such moments in our lives were actually about rights. As if life and death were somehow a matter of legislation. If only we could get the laws right, our coming into and going from this world would somehow pass smoothly. No. Of course not. Being born and dying are not like voting rights or equal pay. These latter issues should be the subject of vigorous advocacy–and that is part of being pro-life, too. The struggle for justice on behalf of the oppressed, advocacy on behalf of the weak and voiceless, and giving of our plenty to supply the needs of the poor are all pro-life activities. It’s about much, much more than conception and natural death.

As more states legalize assisted suicide, the conversations we have about death should become more serious and thoroughly honest. And we should talk with everyone, not only those with whom we agree. While I am against the legalization of assisted suicide, I do not oppose it automatically because it is not ‘pro-life.’ Actually, I share the concerns of those who support the bill with some hesitation, those who might well disagree deeply with some of the rest of my convictions regarding life and death and the One who holds both in omnipotent and gentle hands. Just this morning, I had the good fortune to come across a thoughtful and honest piece about death and how we approach it. Clare Bidwell Smith writes lucidly and compellingly about the end of life, not only as a professional but as a person who tended both her parents as they approached death.

‘Let us not leap to the last page without at least skimming the last chapter,’ she counsels. Skipping the ‘last chapter’ might save us a lot of suffering, certainly; but, as she points out, there is often important work to do in that chapter, work that earlier chapters leave out. Her account of the last weeks of her father’s life is both moving and enlightening–and should inform the decisions of any considering assisted suicide as a way out. Perhaps she won’t convince everyone to wait, but she might just show us all what we might be missing.

For Claire Tidwell Smith, and all who treat death with reverence, Deo gratias.

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