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Stephanie’s Fight to Live

1/1/2017

by Clara Fox

In the face of a growing movement to legalize assisted suicide, a terminally ill woman bravely advocates for the vulnerable

Stephanie Packer pictured with her family

Stephanie Packer and her husband, Brian, a member of Father Peter J.J. Juba Council 4922 in Orange, Calif., are pictured with their four children at the home of Stephanie’s mother Nov. 14, 2016. Stephanie suffers from a terminal illness that makes it difficult to breathe. Photo by Slav Zatoka Images

Seven-year-old Savannah is eager to talk about how she takes care of her mother, Stephanie Packer, 34, who has a terminal disease affecting her lungs and other organs.

“I’m her nurse. I help her and bring her medicine when she asks me to,” Savannah said as she balanced on an exercise ball at her grandmother’s house in Orange, Calif., last November.

“I’m my mom’s favorite,” she added with a smile, prompting a good-humored uproar from her siblings: Brian, 13, Scarlett, 12, and Jacob, 10.

Stephanie’s husband, Brian Packer, 38, is Stephanie’s caregiver during the week. A member of Father Peter J.J. Juba Council 4922 in Orange, he works weekends as a handyman at Holy Family Cathedral to keep the family financially afloat.

Brian’s fellow council members occasionally provide groceries or drop by the house to help, and life insurance would never have been an option for Brian and Stephanie if the Knights hadn’t stepped in and paid for both of their policies. “The Knights are a lifeline,” Stephanie said.

Faced with Stephanie’s terminal prognosis, the tight-knit family from Santa Ana has been determined to do everything possible to keep her around.

One week after California’s physician-assisted suicide law went into effect June 9, 2016, the Packers encountered a major hurdle when Stephanie received a disturbing letter from her health insurance company. Stephanie was told her doctor-recommended chemotherapy treatment that the company had previously promised was now being denied. However, she was later informed that her plan would cover a lethal dose of suicide pills — at the incredibly low cost of $1.20.

“It was like someone hit me in the gut,” Stephanie recalled. “The most cost-effective solution was now assisted suicide.”

Hearing this news, a reporter friend set out to cover the story and asked the insurance company for comment, which they declined.

“The next morning I got a phone call saying the drug was now approved,” Stephanie said. While grateful for her victory, she was well aware that “most dying patients don’t have media contacts” and became determined to become an advocate.

THE VALUE OF LIFE

Until 2014, the movement to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the United States had succeeded in only four states — by referendum in Oregon and Washington, a state legislature vote in Vermont and court decision in Montana. Its main proponent was the Hemlock Society, which rebranded itself Compassion & Choices in 2004.

In 2014, Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old from California with terminal brain cancer, became the face of the so-called “right-to-die” movement. Funded by wealthy donors and groups such as billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Foundations, Compassion & Choices launched a multimedia campaign promoting Maynard’s “right to die on her own terms.”

In the words of Stephanie Packer, “It glamorized suicide as a heroic event.”

On Nov. 1, 2014, Maynard swallowed a lethal dose of narcotics in Oregon. At the time of her death, an estimated 100 million people had heard her story, and soon some 25 jurisdictions in the country were considering physician-assisted suicide, including California, where momentum was growing.

In early 2015, Stephanie Packer stepped into the media spotlight as a reverse image of Brittany Maynard. When Stephanie was diagnosed in 2012 with scleroderma, an autoimmune condition that was attacking her lungs, she was told she had three years to live — a prognosis she has outlived.

Like Maynard, Stephanie was also 29 when she found out that she had a terminal illness. But rather than advocate for suicide, Stephanie joyfully spoke of her choice to live and enjoy her remaining time with her family, while speaking out for the vulnerable who would be victimized if assisted suicide were legalized.

“Compassion & Choices,” she said, “doesn’t acknowledge the value that a terminal patient has, especially after they are sick.”

Stephanie’s outspokenness soon brought her to the attention of the national media. NPR, CNN, The Washington Post and other news outlets covered her story, and one media executive told her that her story had sent their ratings “through the roof.”

However, some responses were brutally unkind; after NPR ran Stephanie’s story, her husband received death threats.

“They just ate us alive after that. It was just comment after comment of nasty stuff,” Stephanie said. “People told me that I should just off myself and that they feel bad for my kids.”

Brian and Stephanie were unfazed by the negative comments online, but they did make sure that their children stopped reading them.

Less than a year after Maynard’s death, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Options Act into law Oct. 5, 2015. The next day, a signature-gathering campaign backed by California’s bishops was launched to place a referendum on California’s November 2016 ballot to overturn the bill. Campaign leaders had 90 days to collect 365,880 signatures.

Mark Padilla, the culture of life chairman for the California State Council, coordinated the parish-based signature-gathering drive. “Ours was an effort run all by volunteers,” Padilla explained. “And the Knights gave it a wonderful shot.”

Although more than 200,000 signatures were collected, the effort fell short of the goal.

Stephanie Packer, advocate for life

Stephanie Packer has become an outspoken advocate for terminally ill patients, the elderly and all who are vulnerable to physician-assisted suicide.

‘THE BEGINNING OF TYRANNY’

On the day before the assisted suicide bill went into effect, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles reflected on its devastating ramifications.

“The logic of assisted suicide leads inevitably to the government and corporate administrators essentially deciding which lives are worth saving and caring for and who would be better off dead,” the archbishop said. “The criteria for such decisions will always be arbitrary and the process will always mean the strong and powerful deciding the fate of those who are weak and less influential in society. This is the beginning of tyranny.”

The following day, Pope Francis addressed health care professionals with these words: “We cannot give in to the functionalist temptation to apply quick and drastic solutions, stirred by false compassion or by simple criteria of efficiency and economic saving. The dignity of human life is at stake; the dignity of the medical vocation is at stake.”

Colorado became the sixth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide after Proposition 106 passed on the November 2016 ballot. Despite the efforts of the Knights of Columbus to raise awareness, the End of Life Options Act passed 65 to 35 percent.

“The TV commercials funded by Compassion & Choices sank us,” said Colorado State Deputy James D. Caffrey.

Less than a week earlier, on Nov. 2, the Washington, D.C., city council voted 11 to 2 to legalize assisted suicide.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, noted that this was the most extreme assisted suicide legislation in the United States.

“It goes beyond assisted suicide by allowing third parties to administer the lethal drugs, opening the door even further to coercion and abuse,” Cardinal Dolan said in a November statement. “Every suicide is tragic, whether someone is young or old, healthy or sick. But the legalization of doctor-assisted suicide creates two classes of people: those whose suicides are to be prevented at any cost and those whose suicides are deemed a positive good.”

In November 2016, Stephanie Packer flew to New Jersey and testified before legislators, asking state senators to reject the proposed Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act.

Her testimony in Trenton made the state legislators think twice about the issue, according to Marie Tasy, the executive director for New Jersey Right to Life, the organization that funded Stephanie’s trip.

“She has an indomitable spirit, and she wants to do everything she can to live and to spend as much time with her family as possible,” Tasy said.

New Jersey state senators have until January 2018 to vote on the assisted suicide measure, which could be scheduled for a vote at any time.

A WORLDWIDE CRISIS

The United States is far from the only country where the movement promoting “medically assisted suicide” has grown. In June 2016, Canadian lawmakers passed legislation legalizing the practice nationwide.

A recent policy left doctors and nurses in Ontario under pressure to either perform assisted suicide or make an “effective referral,” sending the patient to another physician who is willing to assist. A similar law is in place in Vermont.

According to Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, this referral is the moral equivalent of participating in the act.

Many countries around the world feel increased pressure to legalize not only physician-assisted suicide, but also euthanasia — the intentional killing of one person by another.

“You have this new attitude that it’s OK for a doctor to kill a patient just because they are suffering,” said Schadenberg, who is a member of Rev. John McMaster Council 6495 in West Lorne, Ontario, and former culture of life chairman for the Ontario State Council. “But suffering is part of the human condition. The question is how do we as a society deal with those who are going through a difficult time in their life?”

Colombia, Switzerland and Luxembourg now allow euthanasia. In the Netherlands, where the Dutch Supreme Court legalized euthanasia in 1984, the government is pushing to expand euthanasia to people who are neither sick nor dying, but merely think their “life is complete.”

It was in the Netherlands that a Catholic nun was euthanized against her will by a doctor in 2004. The doctor argued that his patient was dying of cancer and was hindered by her religious beliefs from making the best decision — so he made it for her.

Belgium has the most liberal euthanasia laws, allowing mentally ill patients to receive lethal injections. It is also the first country to allow terminally ill children to request euthanasia.

Eighty-one-year-old Christine Nagel in Calgary, Alberta, saw where the laws were going and decided to get her first tattoo: the words “Don’t euthanize me.” She told Canadian news outlet Globalnews.ca, “It’s drastic, but this very clearly says, ‘I’m going to live until God’s ready for me.’”

Nagel said the cost of caring for the aging population, known as the Silver Tsunami, was behind the government’s push for assisted suicide.

“Our government and Supreme Court do not of course mention anything about money,” Nagel said. “But they do warn us that within a few years, seniors will outnumber the rest of the population and will need an army of caregivers to cope with them.”

Although Compassion & Choices has never raised the financial issue, Hemlock Society founder Derek Humphry openly wrote in his book Freedom to Die that “in the final analysis, economics, not the quest for broadened individual liberties or increased autonomy, will drive assisted suicide to the plateau of acceptable practice.”

Meanwhile, Stephanie Packer stays focused on her family and her fight to keep herself — and others — alive. “I just want to see tomorrow,” she said.

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CLARA FOX is a staff writer for Angelus News, the multimedia news platform of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.