WASHINGTON, October 29, 2014 — Brittany Maynard had been married for only a year when she was diagnosed in January with brain cancer. Her doctors at first thought she might live for ten years, but in April determined that her cancer was much more aggressive than they initially thought. Her cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, leaves patients with a life expectancy of just 14 months.
The 29-year-old Maynard decided she didn’t wish to experience the slow, painful death that her cancer would bring. She and her husband moved from Northern California to Oregon, one of three states with “Death with Dignity” laws – Oregon, Washington, and Vermont – that allow terminally ill people to self-administer prescribed drugs to end their lives. (New Mexico and Montana permit assisted suicide due to court rulings.)
Since then, Maynard has become the face of the Death with Dignity movement. She posted a YouTube video that has been viewed more than 8 million times, in which she explained her decision to die on November 1, two days after her husband’s birthday. She set up her own organization, “Compassion and Choices,” to promote the ideas expressed by her and her family in her YouTube videos.
Maynard isn’t the first person in America to choose to take her own life under the law; Oregon’s law was passed by voters in 1994 and reaffirmed in 1997. She also isn’t the first person to make this a national issue; Dr. Jack Kervorkian, sometimes called “Dr. Death,” long championed the cause of assisted suicide. But her youth, compelling story and vibrant personality make Maynard a far more attractive face for this movement than the dour Kervorkian could ever be.
It is difficult to take objective issue with Maynard’s decision. The moral and religious objections to it rest on value judgments that not everyone shares. But the “Death with Dignity” concept is disturbing for a reason grounded in its rhetoric: It leaves us to conclude that any other choice is undignified.
Death with dignity is an attitude, not a medical procedure. Life with dignity is a process, a statement of who we are; death is just the end point.
Given the choice of spending my last months hooked up to machines while I lie there in a drug-induced haze, I would decline. Most of us would. Likewise, most of us would choose a fast and painless death over a protracted and agonizing demise, though fewer would choose the fast death if it meant medically assisted suicide.
How we choose to go – at nature’s pace, on a drug-induced hastened schedule, or on a medically-assisted delayed pace – is a personal issue constrained by laws, finances and technology. Whether those laws should be changed is not the issue here. Rather the issue is to claim the word “dignity” for death as we choose to meet it, as I eventually choose to meet it.
I hope that my death will be dignified. Whether it is dignified depends on my life, though; my death can be no more dignified than my life. Death is the period, life is the sentence. The dignity isn’t in the punctuation.
Maynard seems to be a dignified young woman. Whether she goes through with her plans on Nov. 1 or decides to wait, her death will have that same dignity.
People sometimes argue that those who focus on rhetoric ignore the realities for games with words. If we focus only on the rhetoric, that’s a fair criticism, but sometimes the rhetoric matters. Maynard isn’t really fighting for death with dignity, but for the right to make a choice, to be treated as a dignified human being: “You are fit to make that choice, and face whatever comes next while taking responsibility for that choice.”
We wish peace for Brittany Maynard and her family, whichever choice she makes. We hope only that they understand, they didn’t have to go to Oregon for her life and death to have meaning and dignity.