Thursday, August 7, 2008

A well-lived life still well worth living

Though ravaged by Lou Gehrig’s disease and barely able to speak, John Peyton is using his final months to oppose Washington’s assisted suicide initiative

BY KEVIN BIRNBAUM

John Peyton doesn’t have long to live. His doctor gave him three to six months. That was more than two months ago.

Peyton, just 64, has an unusually aggressive case of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. In the months since he first had trouble lifting a hammer over his head last November, he has gone from healthy and active to completely paralyzed, struggling to breathe with a ventilator.

The motor neuron disease has made him totally dependent on Patricia Peyton, his wife of 40 years. He can't dress himself, feed himself, brush a stray eyelash from his cheek, or even shift his weight in the living room recliner where he now spends his days.

The former Boeing computer programmer’s once-strong voice is fading fast, and soon it will go altogether. But while he still has it, John Peyton is using his voice to proclaim the intrinsic value and sanctity of every human life, at every stage, in every condition. He has spent his final months opposing Initiative 1000, the so-called “Death with Dignity Act,” which will be on the ballot in November and, if passed, would legalize physician-assisted suicide in Washington state.

In recent interviews with The Associated Press and Fox News, among others, Peyton has shared the message that every life is precious, a message, he believes, with which the November ballot measure is fundamentally at odds.

“This Initiative 1000 is just the first step in putting into law the lie that there is such a thing as a life not worth living,” he says, and he fears where that lethal logic will lead if the lie is bought into.

A pro-life life

Peyton is no Johnny-come-lately to the anti-assisted suicide cause. His engagement with pro-life issues began when Washington state legalized abortion in the early 1970s, before Roe v. Wade. That spurred the Peytons, then living in Ohio, to get involved with Birthright International, an organization that aids women in crisis pregnancies. Through Birthright, John, Patricia and their young daughters welcomed several expectant mothers into their home for days or weeks at a time. It was simply a matter of “putting your money where your mouth is,” says Patricia – if they were going to be personally opposed to abortion, they were going to do something to help.

When the Peytons, who first met as students at Seattle University, returned to Washington in 1977, John joined the speakers bureau of Human Life of Washington and began giving talks on pro-life issues at schools, churches and club meetings. He also served as the state pro-life chairman for the Knights of Columbus when, in 1991, Washington’s first assisted suicide ballot measure, Initiative 119, was defeated.

True compassion and dignity

Becoming what some would consider a perfect candidate for physician-assisted suicide hasn’t changed Peyton’s stand on the issue. If anything, it’s strengthened it.

Peyton knows that he is “exceedingly fortunate” to have the loving support of his wife, his six grown daughters and their families, his friends and neighbors and his home parish, St. Paul in Seattle. But what about those suffering with terminal illnesses who are not so fortunate? Rather than tempting them to commit suicide, Peyton contends, our society needs to extend true compassion to the dying.

“So much can be done to help people who are helpless,” he says. “We could, as a society, be far more compassionate. We've become so accustomed to luxury. We've become so materialistic in some respects. We've become so selfish. … You can't legislate compassionate care, but that's what's going to be needed.”

Though Initiative 1000 is couched in such attractive terms as “compassion” and “dignity,” the Peytons say such wording is ultimately deceptive. “I feel that I’m helping my husband have death with dignity by keeping his dignity and helping him in any way I can,” says Patricia.

Facing death with faith

The Peytons have been able to deal with the prospect of John’s impending death largely because of their deep Catholic faith, which John calls “the fundamental and essential part of our lives.” That faith is a major source of strength for John and Patricia, but it doesn’t mean they haven’t had their share of tears in recent months.

“Well, I'm disappointed, there's no denying that,” says John, who had hoped to have many more years to enjoy retirement with Patricia. “But I don't feel any anger or bitterness. I don't feel cheated of anything.” In fact, acquaintances have marveled that John’s disease hasn’t dampened his attitude. While his body has deteriorated, his hopeful outlook and dry sense of humor have survived intact.

“I’ve told people that if this is what God demands of me to improve my chances of living with him in the hereafter, mine is a pretty poor negotiating position,” he says with a smile.

So, after more than 30 years of speaking about life issues, John’s voice is giving out, and he’s prepared to leave this life with trust in God’s mercy, though he’ll leave behind much unfinished work.

“I've just about said the last pro-life thing that I'm going to be able to say,” he gasps at the end of a long interview. A single tear runs down his cheek, but his eyes burn with urgency and intensity. “It's up to you guys now. Take it up. May God go with you.”

John Peyton may soon lose his voice, as he will surely lose his life, but the witness of his life, his faith, his courage and true dignity in the face of death will reverberate long after he’s gone to his heavenly reward.


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'Death with dignity' or a path to disaster?

Though Lou Gehrig’s disease has nearly robbed him of his voice, John Peyton still has some strong words of warning to say about Initiative 1000:

• “In our legal system, an accomplice is as guilty as a perpetrator. A doctor writes a prescription so someone can commit suicide, he's an accomplice to suicide. … Suicide is killing. It makes a doctor a killer.”

• “Every life is a good. A legitimate government protects every life. A legitimate government is honest, and to give physicians the chance to be killers … and tell people that life can be worthless – what kind of society are we building?”

• “One of the fundamental principles of this thing is the absolute autonomy of the individual, and this myth of absolute autonomy … is the foundation for anarchy. But that's one of the things that's in play here. You are the absolute master of your life. Nobody has a right to tell you any different.”

• “If you say that I have an absolute right to do away with myself in this case, where do my absolute rights stop? They don't. Once you say that you are your own ultimate moral authority, you've joined Friedrich Nietzsche, you've become one of the √úbermenschen, one of the higher men, and you are above the law, you are above any law, and that's what this thing implements. That's the principle involved.”