Brittany Maynard and Death with Dignity

This is a post that seems too difficult to write in the limited time of my lunch break.  But I was reading this morning about the “assisted” suicide of brain cancer victim Brittany Maynard and her story has been on my mind.  At the age of 29, Maynard was suffering from painful seizures as a result of a fatal glioblastoma.  The disease would have ended her life within a few months.

Maynard, along with her husband and parents, moved to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s Death with Dignity Act.  The law allowed a physician to write her a prescription for a fatal dose of barbiturates.  On the first of this month, she ended her life.

I remember that, a couple of decades ago, assisted suicide had come into public awareness and was a hot topic.  Despite being a serious subject, I would hear jokes everywhere I went, comments about “Dr. Death” and being “Kevorkianed.”  Our discomfort with discussions of death led to wisecracking not unlike the faux witticisms I am now hearing about Ebola.

Maynard emphasized that a choice to beat a painful, fatal disease to the punch is not the same as “suicide.”  Apparently, the difference is that most people who commit suicide could have chosen to go on with full lives.  What the two situations do share is a whole lot of unbearable pain, be it physical, psychological or both.

I don’t think it is fair to require those whose bodies are rapidly deteriorating in the most horrible fashion possible to continue to live with a level of pain that few of us could imagine and fewer endure.

By the way, I think it’s past time that suicide, assisted or otherwise, stopped being a forbidden topic of conversation.  There’s no need to clear one’s throat and change the subject.  It is encouraging that the recent death of Robin Williams seems to be starting to make discussion of suicide more acceptable.

Many argue that suicide can often be prevented, that we need to devote more resources to mental illness and that we need to remove the stigma surrounding depression and other types of mental illness.  My father always dismissed suicide as “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

But what about those situations that are not temporary?  Those with terminal illnesses will never recover, no matter how many drugs and how much radiation and surgery we throw at them.  Their intolerable level of suffering will only increase as their quality of life dwindles to zero in the few days and weeks they have remaining.

So, yes, I support the ongoing work of Maynard’s husband toward passing Death with Dignity laws in every state.  I find it incredible that some claiming to be “pro choice” who are willing to end the developing lives of the unborn in the name of the right to control their own bodies are unable to support the right of a dying adult to make a life-ending decision on what to do with his or her own body.

If we can legalize abortion, I see no reason for us to be unable to legalize death with dignity for the terminally ill.

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4 thoughts on “Brittany Maynard and Death with Dignity

  1. This is a very hard topic, for sure. I’m always impressed when you can hit the major points about a controversial topic without writing a novel. Kudos.

    I am going to play devil’s advocate for a moment. What about the 67 year-old man that has been diagnosed with a terminal illness that decides to go with assisted suicide because it’s cheaper than fighting his illness or long-term care? What if that man really wants every last second he can get with his family but doesn’t want to be a burden? If he can’t go peacefully in an overdose of relaxing, euphoric-inducing medication, he won’t go at all until his illness kills him. But because his state happens to have a Death with Dignity Act in place, this is what he chooses.

    It’s late and my thoughts are muddled. I hope you understand ny point. Would legalizing such a thing result in people dying for the wrong reasons? Are there wrong reasons? Do we need to include extensive psych evals before we hand out the barbiturates?

    • First of all, Mindy, thank you so much for your very thoughtful comment. You make excellent points.

      I believe in every person’s right to self-determination. In this life, we have little control over the actions of others or the vagaries of nature and fate. We can only control how we choose to live our own lives. And that includes the choice to end them.

      There are those who argue that the Hippocratic Oath (“first, do no harm”) forbids medical professionals from dispensing deadly drugs. Of course, the original Oath of Hippocrates also prohibited doctors from prescribing birth control (“pessaries”). In both cases, it is ridiculous to remain blind to changes in society that have occurred over the centuries.

      As for your hypothetical patient, who are we to make choices for him? And, just as in the case of abortion, if a legal means is not available, people will avail themselves of illegal ones. Who’s to say that he won’t just walk off a bridge or put a gun in his mouth instead?

  2. Hey there,
    I just nominated you for One Lovely Blog Award! 🙂 It is posted at http://wp.me/p4AEJz-cs if you would like to take a look! Thanks for being an awesome blogger! Keep up the good work! I know you are awfully busy these days (yay for work!) so please don’t feel pressured to do a corresponding post. If you would like to, however, here are the “rules” (pretty loose, I have never met the rule enforcer):
    1. Thank the person who nominated you.
    2. Tell us seven things about yourself.
    3. Post a One Lovely Blog badge in the post or on your blog.
    4. Nominate seven other bloggers you admire.

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