Brittany Maynard and her bridal party on her wedding day. Photo courtesy of Facebook/Brittany Maynard
I first became aware of Brittany Maynard in the grocery store late one night when her face and the headline “My Decision To Die” shouted out at me from the cover of a People magazine. I was late to the conversation, since Ms. Maynard had been in the news for weeks by that point, having chosen to make her choice to end her life following a terminal cancer diagnosis public.
To be more specific, Ms. Maynard was diagnosed on New Year’s Day of this year with a serious brain tumor following complaints of headaches. As she described in her first-person story on CNN, nine days after her initial diagnoses, she had a partial craniotomy and a partial resection of her temporal lobe.
Four months later, the tumor had returned more aggressively and she was given a prognosis of six months to live. Based on her treatment, she didn’t feel that there were treatment options that wouldn’t also effectively destroy her quality of life, so she made the choice to end her literal life.
Assisted suicide for the terminally ill is an extremely controversial topic. When I was younger, I remember Dr. Jack Kevorkian making headlines under the odious nickname “Dr. Death.” I vividly remember my confusion at why this was “such a big deal” (quotes indicating my present-day awareness of that glib phrasing). The news showed people who appeared to either be in great pain or totally “out of it” (glib phrasing, again), and I just thought that if a doctor was there to help them end that suffering in a medically safe way, why was this an issue for anyone other than those people and their immediate friends and family?
I thought then, as I think now, that we all deserve to die with dignity. Even before I learned further details, and not being an oncologist, seeing that Ms. Maynard’s initial diagnosis of grade 2 astrocytoma that returned as grade 4 astrocytoma following major brain surgery that was supposed to remove it made me gasp. They tried to remove it and it came back twice as strong. And this was her brain.
People who are opposed to her decision may say there’s always treatment, or at the bare minimum, there’s palliative care to make the terminally ill more comfortable as they lay dying. In Brittany’s case, she had the option of full brain radiation, which would have “singed off” her scalp and left it covered with first-degree burns. With no guarantee of success.
People who are opposed to her decision would point to palliative or hospice care as a way to let the process happen as it is meant to, in a caring and medically staffed environment designed with her comfort in mind during her last days, however many they may number.
People who are opposed to her decision would say you can’t play God.
I am a person of faith, but my faith includes belief in science and medicine and the grave reality of Grade 2 becoming Grade 4 following attempted removal. That is why I completely support her decision.
“If only we could somehow keep legislation out of it. In the only opposing viewpoint I read on the topic that I found sound, balanced, and not motivated by a religious agenda or an overly preachy politically conservative tone, Diane Coleman wrote on CNN.com that “Assisted suicide legalization isn’t about Brittany Maynard. It’s about the thousands of vulnerable ill, elderly and disabled people who will be harmed if assisted suicide is legalized.”
I support Ms. Maynard’s decision based on my overall belief that intense suffering need not be upheld as the “noblest” choice in every situation, as well as because of the many details about her condition, family, and desires that she chose to make public. However, increased legalization brings up other concerns, and I admit I have doubts in considering bringing the law to more states.
In order to carry out her wishes in the most safe and legal way possible, Brittany and her husband had to uproot their lives in California and move to Oregon, where the Death with Dignity Act was passed in 1994. The law includes requirements of both the patient’s terminal prognosis and mental capacity to determine legitimacy and the lack of pure depression as motivation.
Compassion and Choices is an organization that advocates for death with dignity laws across the country, and the new Brittany Maynard Fund is a fundraising initiative from the organization. As much as I believe in everyone’s right to die with dignity, I worry that as the choice becomes legal in more states, there are more possibilities for misuse and harm. I shudder to think of a patient whose heirs may manipulate or coerce them into the choice, and of the large margin of error there may be on those psych evals on a case-by-case basis.
Our country’s healthcare system is dramatically broken and too often driven by financial concerns, and assisted suicide is exponentially cheaper than actual treatment, which is another potentially terrifying truth. As is the idea that with more patients seeking Death with Dignity, more lives may be deemed not worth living, and possibly prematurely.
I have never walked a step in Brittany’s shoes, or in anyone’s with a terminal diagnosis, so ultimately it is not for me to say what they should or should not do, or in Brittany’s case, what she should have done.
Brittany Maynard’s last day alive was November 1st. I really hope that more people are able to safely and legally choose this option if they see fit. And I also hope that those decisions are made thoughtfully and free of coercion or ulterior motive. No one should have to endure debilitating pain or devastating loss of dignity just to satisfy the moral codifications of others.