The recent suicide of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who took a lethal dose of physician-prescribed drugs in Oregon on Nov. 1, offers a time to mourn, not only for a young woman’s death, but also for the way in which an advocacy group and a cooperative media used her plight to further public acceptance of legalized killing – i.e., physician-assisted suicide.

The group that now calls itself “Compassion & Choices,” which eagerly used Maynard for a propaganda campaign, used to be known as the Hemlock Society, taking its name from the poisonous plant used to execute the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. The group’s goal is to expand legalized physician- assisted suicide to all 50 states, and it exploited Maynard’s case to launch a massive fundraising and public relations campaign to confuse the public on the true nature of this issue.

How telling that the group has wrapped itself in the mantle of “choice,” just as the pro-abortion movement has done. In this case, they cloak the unthinkable in euphemisms that are easier to accept than the truth of what the organization is really promoting: legally segregating certain lives as not worth living, and transforming physicians, nurses and pharmacists from  professions dedicated, since the time of the Hippocratic Oath, to protecting lives, into professions that sometimes eliminate them.

Despite the emphasis on “choice” and supposed precautions against abuse, commentators have noted how the so-called “right to die” quickly devolves into a “duty to die,” in which the dying and disabled feel obligated to end their lives so they are no longer a burden to their family members or to society.

One of the co-founders of the Hemlock Society admitted that economics, not an appeal to personal autonomy, would eventually make the issue of assisted suicide palatable to the American public. There are documented cases of people in Oregon whose insurance offered to cover assisted suicide, but refused life-prolonging cancer treatments. It is no wonder that people with disabilities have been among the most vocal opponents of assisted suicide, because they recognize the hidden agenda to marginalize and even eliminate people who don’t measure up to what many consider to be an acceptable “quality of life.”

Can we not see this campaign for what it is – an effort to   promote a utilitarian worldview by distorting the true meaning of compassion, dignity and mercy? There is no dignity in “death with dignity,” no mercy in “mercy killing” and no compassion when a doctor, family member or friend helps someone commit suicide.  Authentic efforts to manage the pain and symptoms of advanced illness through palliative care are truncated by a society that would rather kill the patient instead of relieving the pain.

“Compassion & Choices” played up a false idea of autonomy and down-played the truth that this is the taking of a life. Maynard herself demonstrated the conflicting messages in her comments, “I am not suicidal… I want to die on my own terms.” As if on cue, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times and an opinion piece in the Washington Post used Maynard’s case to argue for legalizing assisted suicide.

Yet, what the media is not reporting is the tragic story of  how each year in our country, 40,000 people commit suicide, leaving grieving family members and friends behind. Instead of encouraging more people to take their lives, our society should seek to prevent these deaths, and help people to choose hope and life, not death.

St. John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life, warned of a growing culture of death. He wrote, “Euthanasia must be called a false mercy, and indeed a disturbing ‘perversion’ of mercy. True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear.”

To overcome the culture of death, St. John Paul II called on people to build a culture of life and love. That message is central to the Archdiocese of Washington’s education campaign this month, found at TransformFear.org, which encourages people to offer Christ’s love and hope to those who are sick and dying.

In a pastoral statement, Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon, commented on assisted suicide, an issue dramatized by the tragic death of Brittany Maynard in his state. He wrote that “instead of hastening death, we encourage all to embrace the sometimes difficult but precious moments at the end of life, for it is often in these moments that we come to understand what is most important about life. Our final days help us to prepare for our eternal destiny.”

The archbishop went on to write, “We stand in solidarity with all those who are suffering and dying, and all those who are struggling to find meaning in life. Don’t give up hope! We are with you! As friends, families and neighbors we pledge to surround you with our love and compassion until the sacred moment when God calls you home.”

Brittany Maynard deserved better than the hopeless “solution” that was offered to her by advocates of medicalized death who had her believe that she was better off dead. She deserved a more dignified death than killing herself.

Let us take up this call to solidarity and make the truly compassionate choice for life, by praying with and for, and offering love and support to the sick and dying, and let us work with people of goodwill to stand against the culture of death invading our doctors’ offices, our bedsides and our statehouses.