On Death, Dying with Dignity, and Brittany Maynard

Dear Dwonna:

I believe that suicide is wrong, but the 29-year-old woman in Oregon who chose to end her life last week has made me question my rigid belief. What are your thoughts about this?




Dear Reuben:

Here’s a little bit of background for those who don’t know the story of Brittany Maynard.

On New Year’s Day of 2014, doctors diagnosed 29-year-old Brittany Maynard with “a likely stage 4 glioblastoma,” a terminal brain cancer “for which there was no cure or life saving measures available.” Doctors gave Maynard just six months to live. After “careful assessment of her prognosis and end-of-life choices,” Maynard and her husband “reluctantly decided to move” from California to Oregon in order to take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity Act. Oregon is one of five states (Washington, Montana, Vermont, and New Mexico are the other four) that allows physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to terminally-ill patients. “My glioblastoma is going to kill me and that’s out of my control,” Maynard told People magazine. “I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. So being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.”

In September, Maynard announced that she would end her life by taking a “fatal dose of barbiturates” on November 1, 2014, a decision that reignited the national debate about physician-assisted suicide. In the last weeks of her life, Maynard became an advocate for “access for death with dignity in California and nationwide,” and on October 6, she launched an online-video campaign with Compassion & Choices, a non-profit organization that is “committed to helping everyone have the best death possible.” “The freedom is in the choice,” Maynard said. “If the option of DWD [death with dignity] is unappealing to anyone for any reason, they can simply choose not to avail themselves of it.”

Maynard said that her family accepted her decision to end her life with dignity, telling People: “I think in the beginning my family members wanted a miracle; they wanted a cure for my cancer,” she said. “When we all sat down and looked at the facts, there isn’t a single person that loves me that wishes me more pain and more suffering.” An only child, Maynard said that she hoped her mother did not “break down” or “suffer from any kind of depression.” She also said that she hoped her husband “moves on and becomes a father.” “There’s no part of me that wants him to live out the rest of his life just missing his wife,” she said. For Maynard, what mattered the most was “the way I’m remembered by my family and my husband as a good woman who did my best to be a good wife and a good daughter.”

On October 29, Maynard posted a video in which she said that she still felt “good enough” and that “I still have enough joy and I still laugh and smile with my family and friends enough that it doesn’t seem like the right time now.” Many people expected (hoped?) that she would postpone her November 1 suicide. However, Maynard “suffered increasingly frequent and longer seizures, severe head and neck pain, and stroke-like symptoms.” “As the symptoms grew more severe,” a statement released by Compassion & Choice said, Maynard chose to “abbreviate the dying process by taking the aid-in-dying medication she had received months ago.” She died “peacefully on Saturday, November 1 in her Portland home, surrounded by family and friends.”

Not everyone agreed with the 29-year-old woman’s decision to end her life. Janet Morana, executive director of Priests for Life, said in a statement after hearing about Maynard’s death:

“We are saddened by the fact that his young woman gave up hope, and now our concern is for other people with terminal illnesses who may contemplate following her example. Our prayer is that these people will find the courage to live every day to the fullest until God calls them home. Brittany’s death was not a victory for a political cause. It was a tragedy, hastened by despair and aided by the culture of death invading our country.”

In an article for Religion News Service, Joni Eareckson Tada—an evangelical inspirational speaker and Catholic seminarian who also has brain cancer—wrote, “I understand she may be in great pain, and her treatment options are limited and have their own devastating side effects, but I believe Brittany is missing a critical factor in her formula for death: God.”

Janet Morana, Joni Eareckson Tada, and everyone else who believe that people with painful and terminal illnesses should “find the courage to live” are just plain wrong, and these people should spend more time helping the terminally ill “die with dignity” rather than suggesting that they stay around for a painful life. Who are these women to suggest that Brittany Maynard should suffer because Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act makes them uncomfortable? Who are Morana and Tada to decide that someone they have never met should “live every day to the fullest until God calls them home” when they may not be the ones suffering? Does the God Morana and Tada worship really want people like Brittany Maynard to suffer? Why would this God they worship let Maynard suffer so without providing the tools for her to end her suffering and die peacefully on her own terms? “For people to argue against this choice for sick people really seems evil to me,” Maynard said. “They try to mix it up with suicide and that’s really unfair, because there’s not a single part of me that wants to die. But I’m dying.”

Yes, doctors told Brittany Maynard that there was no cure for what she had and that she was going to die, and she had every right to decide for herself to die with dignity sooner rather than wait for a painful—but natural—death later. I pray to God, Jesus, Mother Mary, Buddha, and all of my guardian angels that I am never so sick as to have to make the kind of decision that Brittany Maynard did. I am grateful that I am healthy, and I pray that I always stay this way. I’m not willing to judge Maynard’s decision to end her life surrounded by her loved ones when the pain became too much because I’m not the one dying of brain cancer.

Some organizations criticized Compassion & Choices for “exploiting” Brittany Maynard, saying that they used her story to “politicize” the debate about right-to-die issues. The National Right to Life called them “ghoulish,” saying that they were “angry that Compassion & Choices would exploit her tragedy for its own malevolent purposes.” Maynard would disagree. In her own blog, she wrote:

“I made my decisions based on my wishes, clinical research, choices, discussions with physicians, and logic,” she wrote. “I am not depressed or suicidal or on a ‘slippery slope.’ I have been in charge of this choice, gaining control of a terrifying terminal disease through the application of my own humane logic.”

Throughout the last month of her life, Maynard said that was the reason for her campaign—“to fight for other terminally-ill patients in states without protections.” Neither the Catholic Church, nor federal or state governments, nor the National Right to Life should have a say in whether or not a terminally-ill person chooses to die with dignity. Let each person suffering from a terminal illness figure out his or her own best way to “die well.”

In God is No Laughing Matter, Julia Cameron writes, “Sometimes the dying live more fiercely and wisely than the rest of us.” This seems to have been true for Brittany Maynard, whose last words to the world before she ended her life on November 1 were “Spread good energy. Pay it forward!” Although she only lived for 29 years, Maynard made us all think about what it means to live, and what it means to die. “It is people who pause to appreciate life and give thanks who are happiest,” Maynard said. “If we change our thoughts, we change our world! Love and peace to you all.”

May we all have the courage to die with the grace and dignity that Brittany Maynard had, and may she now rest in peace.

Brittany M