They received the same diagnosis—and chose two very different paths
J.J. Hanson—a loving husband, father, and Marine—was diagnosed in spring 2014 with grade 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme, the deadliest form of brain cancer. He was right in the prime of his life.
This aggressive cancer was the same disease that prompted Brittany Maynard to take her life by physician-assisted suicide in Oregon in that same year.
As Brittany’s story made headlines, J.J. recognized the subtle pressure for patients like himself to follow suit and do the same. Instead, he used his final days to speak out against physician-assisted suicide and its ill effects on society.
Now, others are seeking to preserve his legacy and continue his work—including his widow, Kristen Hanson. She spoke on a panel during a recent Heritage Foundation event titled, “J.J. Hanson’s Living Legacy: Renewing Our Will to Live and Love Until the End of Life.”
The panel also included Matt Vallière, a personal friend of J.J.’s and executive director of Patient Rights Action Fund; Mother Mary Frances of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne; and Ryan Anderson, the William E. Simon senior research fellow at Heritage. They spoke about the dangers of legalizing physician-assisted suicide and the need for greater access to quality end-of-life care.
The panel began with a recorded testimony by J.J. and his wife Kristen.
Kristen talked about J.J’s desire for her to share his story as a way to bring hope to patients and their families.
“That’s why I’m here today,” Kristen shared. “J.J. adamantly opposed assisted suicide till the very end and one of the last things that he asked of me was that I would continue sharing our story to protect vulnerable patients who are going to be put at risk with these laws. I’m doing that for him and for all those who don’t even know that they need someone fighting for them.”
She also emphasized the need for better care for those patients and the need to remember that doctors’ predictions about how much time someone has left to live are not always correct.
At least three doctors told J.J. that he had only four months left to live. He ended up living for three and a half more years. In that time, J.J. and Kristen had a second child and made a world of memories.
“If you make that choice, if you do that [assisted suicide] you’ll never know,” said Kristen. “He had three and a half good years, so many beautiful moments we’ve shared as a family. James has gotten to know his daddy; he knows who his daddy is now. We have Lucas. The joys that we have been able to experience these three and a half years are too many to count. If we had listened, if we had given up on hope, we would have missed out on so much.”
Vallière, a close friend of J.J.’s and an advocate against physician-assisted suicide, explained that legalizing physician-assisted suicide will take the tragedy of suicide and turn it into a medical treatment.
Vallière pointed out that none of the top five reasons that people choose physician-assisted suicide in Oregon are due to pain.
“They all have to do with disability or disability-related issues: ‘I feel like a burden on my family.’ ‘I feel like I’ve lost my dignity.’ These are resolvable existential sufferings. They are not going to be resolved by policy,” he said.
Kristen and Vallière emphasized that J.J. was lucky—he had the benefit of excellent medical care and a supportive community. But not everyone who is pressured to end their life in the face of a serious medical diagnosis is so lucky.
How can we ensure that the terminally ill are preserved from suicide, rather than helped down that road?
To begin to answer this question, Frances, of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, shared her experience from the front lines. She explained to the audience that her religious community’s mission is to preach the gospel of life to the poor who are dying from cancer and to help those people to accept death with peace, comfort, and hope.
The sisters refer to everyone who comes to stay with them as “guests.” They endeavor to learn their patients’ personal stories so that they can better understand them and help them to carry their burdens.
“People need to hear, ‘You’re important, your life matters, and I want to be with you until you die,’” said Frances. She wondered whether Brittany Maynard would have made another choice if her family and friends had given her this all-important message.
How can public policy better realize the kind of care that the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne offer?
Anderson supplied public policy solutions and pointed out that more work needs to be done to ensure that patients receive the end-of-life care they deserve. Elaborating upon his paper, “Always Care, Never Kill,” he explained how physician-assisted suicide endangers the weak.
“People aren’t aware what happens to families and communities when assisted suicide is a medical option. They are not aware of what the alternative medical and communal options are,” Anderson explained. “Assisted suicide endangers the weak. Those are the people who are most at risk for either being physically coerced or emotionally coerced or financially coerced into ending their lives prematurely.”
Physician-assisted suicide drastically changes the culture surrounding the practice of medicine.
“How much will you as a patient, if you are a patient with a disability, if you’re a patient with a possible terminal illness, how much will you trust your physician if you know you’re in a jurisdiction where your physician could either heal you or prescribe you a lethal medication?” said Anderson.
This is why disability groups are at the forefront of the fight against physician-assisted suicide. Groups like Not Dead Yet advocate on behalf of people with disabilities, to demonstrate to the rest of society that disabled lives merit just as much protection as anyone else’s.
There is still much work to do in medicine and public policy to offer patients better end-of-life care and make physician-assisted suicide unthinkable.
Vallière explained, “The policy fight is quite imperative as a hand-in-hand with some of these things like increasing palliative care. Physicians in most states do not need to take many hours of palliative training to pass their boards. We’ve got to fight [for more access to palliative care].”
No one understood these points better than J.J.
Kristen explained, “J.J knew that it was important for me to continue sharing his story because through that process, I’ve walked the entire journey with him … . If we care for patients properly at the end of life, then there really wouldn’t be a desire for something else. We really need to address all of the needs of the patients and the family members because all of them need support.”
We must all model J.J. and Kristen’s example and be advocates for the most vulnerable members of society, and fight for public policy solutions and proper end-of-life care that respects the dignity of every human person.
One thing can be for certain: J.J. did not die in vain. His legacy lives on, and we thank him for the gift of his life.
Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that J.J. Hanson did not receive explicit pressure to end his life via physician assisted suicide.