Quaker Theology #28 - Spring-Summer 2016



The Voluntary Death of Friend Peg Morton:
Three Perspectives

I

Feeling Light Within
Peg Morton remembered
For the way she lived and died

Ted Taylor

Eugene, Oregon - Margaret Miner Morton, better known as Peg Morton in the activist and Quaker community, died Dec. 19 at age 85 of natural causes. Before she died, her voice and charisma still filled rooms, and with medical intervention, she likely would have had more years to live, love and be politically active, but her body was telling her, “It’s time to go.”

She was hospitalized with pneumonia over Thanksgiving [2015] weekend, and her overall health and vitality were slipping. She said she didn’t wish to burden herself or her loved ones, or expend resources through the kind of prolonged decline she had observed in others, most recently while living at the Olive Plaza senior apartments downtown. Morton said she appreciated medical science, but not when it artificially extended life at great expense and suffering.

She granted E[ugene] W[eekly] an hour of one-on-one conversation in her light-filled 12th floor apartment, overlooking east Eugene and the Cascades in the distance. She was limiting her diet to a cup of yogurt a day and some green tea. She was about to begin the dry fast that ended her life Dec. 19, after two days in a coma, at the home of friends and in the presence of loved ones. The way she chose to die, by not eating or taking in fluids for 12 days, represents only a small part of her life, but it was also a spiritual and political statement.

In the final chapter of her 2013 memoir, Feeling Light Within, I Walk, Morton wrote, “It is my prayer that I live through my dying in a sacred way. I hope to feel the companionship of my community, and also a divine companionship, to feel the Spirit alive within me.  … There are many situations concerning medical treatment and our deaths over which we have no control, but we often can take control and make decisions.” A longer version of that final chapter was written when she was still in her 70s.

“I feel no need to live to a ripe old age,” Morton wrote. “I already have.” And she observed that the lifestyle, longevity and choices we enjoy in much of North America are not universal, and are actually due to the “exploitation of other peoples and of the natural world.” Solidarity with the poor and oppressed people of the world was always on her mind. She struggled with reconciling her family’s wealth and stature with the abject poverty she observed. She, like many Quakers, chose to live a simple, modest life, consuming little of the Earth’s dwindling resources.

A Painful Decision

Peg Morton’s decision to end her life through fasting was consistent with her philosophical beliefs and religious faith, but it turned out to be more emotionally difficult than she had anticipated. She had observed fellow Quakers and spiritual leaders in their final years and had good friends among the dying residents at Olive Plaza. She noted there are numerous ways to leave this life, but not all are done consciously.

“Many of us feel that we want our bodies to go when they are ready,” she said. “But how do we determine that? It’s so easy to take the next step, to do the medical test or procedure and then you feel a little better, or you don’t. So it’s a gradual progression until you have a stroke or cancer. Often the people who are sitting in these halls, if their memories and faculties are not totally gone, wish they were dead, wish they could just go, and they don’t know how. Some of them just stop eating, and sometimes when your body tells you not to eat, it’s easier for people and they stop eating.”

The emotional pain came from recognizing how many people were shocked and hurt by her decision. “I feel my heart breaking open now,” she said, on the verge of tears. “I know this is something I’m supposed to do, but then there is the pain of the people left behind. And there is my own pain because I won’t see them again and I won’t hug them again. I need them and I won’t have them. I’ve been thinking about my three daughters, too, and I’ve had a long, painful talk with my daughter Heidi, and my poor daughter Do Mi is trying so hard.” She added, “How will what I am doing affect my grandchildren and my daughters?”

Her family struggled with the decision, along with some of her activist and Quaker friends who wanted more time with her or thought her influence was still needed in our troubled world. “You are a woman of unique character that an imperiled world still desperately needs,” friend Jack Dresser, a retired psychoanalyst, wrote to her in the final days. “I have seen none in Eugene who surpass you in honesty of purpose, unimpeachable integrity, social courage and readiness to face what others shrink from.”

The long letter goes to on say, “I invite you to cancel your exit plan and instead broaden that circle to friends you will never meet or know, each representing another potential circle of spreading influence.” Similar pleas were voiced at the Friends Meeting Dec. 6.

A Political Life

Peg Morton’s strong political leanings were informed by her study of U.S. foreign policy, her connections with activist groups and churches of different denominations, and her travels and peace work in the U.S. and around the world, particularly with the Latin America Solidarity Committee and Witness for Peace. She was a member of numerous peace delegations to Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua and elsewhere. She was tear-gassed at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and arrested for participating in protests. She spent three months in federal prison for repeated civic disobedience at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, a U.S. military training center whose graduates went on to become many of Latin America’s most brutal dictators and oppressors. In response to protests, the SOA was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but is still known to many as the “School of Assassins.” SOA Watch continues its campaign to shut the institute down and replace it with a school dedicated to civil and human rights.

“I feel a real, deep need to be out there in some way working for peace and justice,” Morton said in her interview with EW. She admired the courageous “radical” priests in Third World countries who practiced liberation theology – missionary work that focused not so much on saving souls as raising people out of poverty, disease and oppression.

Morton’s politics even carried over to the Friends Meeting for worship, where Quakers sit in silent meditation and only speak if inspired to do so. After a long silence, she did speak out at her final Friends Meeting.

“I love my Friends Meeting and many of you are here. You are my family, my faith, my spiritual family and you have given me so much support over the years,” she told the group of about 150. “For me, and I am weeping now, and I have done weird things and the meeting has supported me [laughter]. But what I need to say is sometimes we Quakers, and other people too, push controversy under the rug because we want to get along with each other, we want things to be smooth and peaceful and beautiful, and so there can be controversies there that are not addressed.” She went on to talk about injustices in the Israel-Palestine conflict “and our inability in our Friends Meeting and in our community to face it.”

She will no longer be a presence, carrying the planet flag, at the Monday Women in Black silent peace vigils downtown, at the Tuesday morning Buddhist walking meditations at the old Federal Building or at Wednesday vigils with Betsy Steffensen and Charlie Hirsch in protest of the Iraq War. The Raging Grannies will sing on without her strong voice.

An Optimist to the End

Violence, injustice, environmental destruction and apathy globally and right here in Eugene continued to perplex Morton right up to the end, and she was busy writing letters to fellow activists urging action in support of Palestinians. She wrote to newspaper editors about homelessness and other issues. Friends passed on letters to EW and The Register-Guard both before and after she died. The letters offer a degree of hope for peace, and at the Friends Meeting she voiced optimism for the future of humanity.

“Sometimes it feels as though it’s sweeping over us and it’s hard to get out of the mud of our feelings, but there is a growing spirit, a growing energy, and it’s not just here among activists, it’s around the world,” she told the packed worship meeting. “It’s the Afghan youth volunteers, it’s the people who are rising nonviolently to make changes in Iraq and across Africa. There is a movement; you can feel it. It’s a spirit network and it’s there, and who knows what it will bring. It would be very much a surprise if this suddenly took over the world, but it’s there, and I feel it’s like a baby being born.”

A celebration of life for Peg Morton [was held] from 2 to 4 pm Saturday, Jan. 16, at the First United Methodist Church, 1376 Olive Street. Her book, Feeling Light Within, I Walk: Tales, Adventures and Reflections of a Quaker Activist, is available at local bookstores.

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