Dying with Dignity

5 minute read

Originally written for the Students For Liberty Blogging Series, posted here on 12.6.14

A photo of Brittany sometime around her marriage. Source: released family photo

Dying with Dignity

On November 1st, the world lost an individual who cannot be replaced.

Brittany Maynard, age 29, was a graduate of both UC Berkeley and UC Irving. She was a newlywed attempting to start a family when she was diagnosed with terminal glioblastoma multiforme, arguably the most deadly form of brain cancer, last April. After undergoing two surgical procedures in attempt to stop and remove the tumor, it returned and doctors gave her six months to live. Her only option was a treatment known as full brain radiation, which would leave her with first degree burns and other lasting side effects that would permanently reduce her quality of life. After a long deliberation, Brittany and her loved ones decided that there was no real solution to her ailment and together believed that it was best to enjoy her life while she could.

However, as Brittany’s doctors warned, a hospice stay would eventually result in levels of pain that no medication could save Brittany from, and that she would devolve mentally over time, becoming a shadow of her former self. In such a situation, Brittany remained strong and adamant, stating “I did not want this nightmare scenario for my family, so I started researching death with dignity.”

Death with Dignity refers to a law that was passed in the 90s in Oregon, the first of its kind in the United States. The Death with Dignity Act legalized the decision of a terminally ill patient to decide the time and date of their death within six months via lethal dose of a prescription approved by their doctor. There are as of now only three states in the US that have such laws, and the requirements to end one’s life are extensive. Typically a hand written request must be made by a patient, it must be witnessed by multiple parties, the physician must be willing to participate, the patient must be of sound mind and acting without coercion, and so forth.

The tragedy of Brittany Maynard’s case does not end with her diagnosis regrettably, because of the three states that allow such action, her state of residency, California, was not one. For Brittany to end her own life before it was painfully taken away from her, it would be required that she move to the state of Oregon and hastily meet the various other requirements necessary for her to have the legal right to die. With what precious time Brittany had left to herself and her loved ones, much of it would end up being spent worrying about the legality of her death, largely in thanks to the meddlesome preferences of bureaucrats and voters she didn’t know and who didn’t know her. Brittany herself put it best:

“I met the criteria for death with dignity in Oregon, but establishing residency in the state to make use of the law required a monumental number of changes. I had to find new physicians, establish residency in Portland, search for a new home, obtain a new driver’s license, change my voter registration and enlist people to take care of our animals, and my husband, Dan, had to take a leave of absence from his job. The vast majority of families do not have the flexibility, resources and time to make all these changes.”

Brittany’s courage and strength did not end with her approach to death. An avid traveler all her life, Brittany was not content to leave without finishing a few last key destinations, including Alaska’s beautiful wilderness and the Grand Canyon. She also wanted to make sure that those after her, when faced with such a decision, could have easier access to death with dignity. Brittany would go on to join Compassion and Choices, an end of life-choice advocacy group, and gave interviews expressing her belief in people having the right to take their lives, given such a scenario. Brittany even appeared on the UK’s Tonight Show, sharing her insight in an attempt to persuade others on her case. If anything else, Brittany made it clear to those close to her that she wanted them to carry on their lives and live to their fullest.

It can be easy to politicize everything, to make it a dichotomic choice between liberty or tyranny, but with Brittany’s case, we see a moment of real tragedy reveal itself. We are given a glance into the lives of people affected by what are meant to be “helpful” or “constructive” laws by others. But like once existing laws involving race, sex, or marriage, it is all too clear that what we’ve come to believe is best for others has only done more harm. What was legislated to protect the sanctity of life has only ended up making it that much more difficult for others to preserve the sanctity of theirs. In her op-ed published in CNN, she argued this herself:

“I am not suicidal. If I were, I would have consumed that medication long ago. I do not want to die. But I am dying. And I want to die on my own terms. I would not tell anyone else that he or she should choose death with dignity. My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain? Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?”

Opinions are very interesting, pervasive, and powerful things. We forget that what we believe can actually have real influence on others. It may be then, that after seeing the difficulty created to Brittany and those close to her, that we should reevaluate what we believe is allowable for others. Before we go about denying someone’s liberty, we must ask ourselves if it really is our place to do so. What does it say about ourselves when we deem our opinion of greater worth than someone’s self ownership? That the government has the final say on your life? That your life is not your own property? What may seem irrelevant to you or I can be monumentally important to others. In the case of Brittany Maynard, the denial of her choice was thankfully overcome. But for others, the problem will surely remain. We ought to fix that for Brittany and those close to us.

“I hope for the sake of my fellow American citizens that I’ll never meet that this option is available to you. If you ever find yourself walking a mile in my shoes, I hope that you would at least be given the same choice and that no one tries to take it from you.”–Brittany Maynard, November 19, 1984 – November 1, 2014