PORTLAND, Ore. — Christopher Redmond vividly remembers the shocking question his father asked him during a telephone conversation back in 2011.
“If I decide to take advantage of the Death With Dignity Act in Oregon, will you block me?” his father asked.
His father was in the middle of a battle with stage-four lung cancer, with painful tumors on his spine, and Christopher was startled by the “tense and angry” tone of the question.
“I told him, ‘I will encourage you strongly not to, but I can’t stop you,’” Christopher Redmond, a pro-life Catholic who resides in Oregon, recalled for the Register.
It was the first hint of the elder Redmond’s evolving plan to leave his California home and move to Oregon, where he could take advantage of the state law permitting assisted suicide.
But Redmond’s account offers a portrait of Oregon’s regime of assisted suicide and its impact on families that is starkly different from the largely positive media coverage of the decision of Brittany Maynard, 29, a Californian with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon for the same purpose and took her life earlier this month.
Compassion & Choices, the national advocacy organization that promotes the adoption of so-called “Death With Dignity” laws across the county, has circulated videos of Maynard, her husband and her mother supporting her decision to exercise her autonomy over the dying process.
“Brittany’s take on this issue was that it just seems ridiculous that we couldn’t live out her final months comfortably in our own home,” Daniel Diaz, Maynard’s husband, told The New York Times.
Oregon’s law legalizing assisted suicide went into effect in 1997, and official data released by the state place the number of patients using the law at about 1,000.
But opponents of the law, including Physicians for Compassionate Care and disability-rights groups, charge that Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act provides no mechanism to investigate allegations of physician misconduct or of coercion by relatives and others who might gain financially from a patient’s death.
Dr. Bill Toffler, a professor of family medicine at Oregon Health and Science University and national director of the Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation, spoke out against the law in the late 1990s, and nothing has changed his mind since then.
“It is a corruption of medical ethics that makes doctors advocates for death, rather than for health and well-being, and it has caused a lack of trust in doctors,” Toffler told the Register, noting that some patients have called his office to ask if a physician who “did not give a good prognosis for their cancer was one of the ‘death doctors?’”
Further, while fear of unbearable pain is often presented as a primary reason for choosing assisted suicide, state records show that most people instead end their lives in a bid to assert control over the dying process or because they fear being a burden on loved ones.
“Requests for assisted suicide are rarely pain-related. We have improved pain management. Mostly, they involve issues of control,” Father John Tuohey, senior director of Providence Center for Healthcare Ethics, told the Register. Father Tuohey said that hospices and foster care for such patients, who do not have families to care for them, have offered worthy solutions for patients facing end-of-life issues.
“Assisted suicide offers the illusion that we can control death by putting it on our own terms,” said Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Ore., in an Oct. 26 statement released as Maynard’s online videos were viewed by millions.
“It suggests that there is freedom in being able to choose death, but it fails to recognize the contradiction. Killing oneself eliminates the freedom enjoyed in earthly life. True autonomy and true freedom come only when we accept death as a force beyond our control,” continued Archbishop Sample.
“Our lives and our deaths belong in the hands of God, who created and sustains us. Through the suffering, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus, we know that death is not the final word.”
Father and Son: Different Perspectives
As a devout Catholic and a local member of 40 Days for Life, Christopher Redmond had long embraced the vision of human dignity and redemptive suffering articulated by Archbishop Sample. Raised Catholic by his mother, he returned to the Church after meeting his wife, Nadia, and the couple is raising their five children Catholic.
But his father, an agnostic, had never been a Catholic. A successful businessman, he had a tendency to boil moral decisions down to a cost-benefit analysis, said his son: “Not having a Christian background, he didn’t have any appreciation for redemptive suffering.”
About this time, Christopher also suspected that his uncle, his father’s younger brother and a supporter of Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, might be encouraging his sibling to consider ending his life.
Once his father moved from California to an Oregon nursing home and began the process of establishing residency in the state, Christopher knew he had little time to stop his father.
“I decided to be there at his bedside, to be present, and to pray my brains out,” he said.
After work, Christopher visited the nursing home almost every day and often took his kids on weekends.
“He didn’t want to talk about religion. I respected that,” Christopher recalled, weeping at times.
“I approached him from a logical base — that is his approach.
“I told him, ‘None of us has a crystal ball. You may die tomorrow or the cancer may suddenly dissipate, and you could live another 10 years.”
He reminded his father that his physicians were doing what they could to make him comfortable, and he shared stories of patients who opted not to take the lethal dose and lived years longer.
Finally, he told his father that he would leave behind a son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren who would miss him dearly.
A Doctor’s Disturbing Attitude
His father was undeterred. The nursing home refused to participate in the assisted suicide, so his father was transferred to the uncle’s house, where he lay on a gurney in the living room as the preparations moved forward.
Visiting his uncle’s home, Christopher was struck by the two brothers’ “task-oriented approach. It was as if they were working on a business project. There was no consideration of the human aspect.”
The day that his father planned to take the prescribed lethal dose, Christopher and his wife were present when the physician affiliated with Compassion & Choices arrived with a nurse assistant.
“I told my father, ‘I cannot condone this, and I will not be present.’”
As the father and son said goodbye, the physician interrupted the moment and moved forward, poised to provide the lethal dose.
Christopher heard the nurse whispering, “Give the family time to pay their respects.” But he thought to himself that the physician projected a disturbing attitude: “This is not an option to die, this is duty to die.”
Christopher and his wife left the house.
“We went to our local church, and I spent the next three hours in front of the Eucharist, praying the Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet and reading before Our Lord.”
His father died on Divine Mercy Sunday, 27 hours after he received the lethal dose, though most patients die much sooner.
“I am convinced that my father lived 27 hours because those were the hours that Our Lord used to talk with him,” said Redmond.
Three years later, he takes solace from this conviction, though his father’s suicide has remained a painful wound.
“Emotionally, it is difficult enough to lose a parent at a young age,” Christopher said. “However, bearing the knowledge that he chose to end his own life I find difficult to accept at times and I also find to be selfish on his part.”
Christopher continues to pray for his father and his uncle every day.
He has told his kids that the lesson to remember is that “people deserve dignity in whatever state they are in. They are not just cogs in a wheel. The kids get it.”
The family hasn’t given much attention to Brittany Maynard’s story. “We don’t really focus on mainstream media much. We talked to our kids to help them understand that whatever is shoved down our throat through mass media is only part of the story. Often, there is an agenda behind what they choose and don’t choose to tell us.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.