by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.
Brittany Maynard was diagnosed with brain cancer. At the age of 29 she decided to end her own life and “die with dignity” under Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act.” There have been many articles written in support of Maynard’s choice and many articles written condemning her choice to die. The right to die movement has many hurdles that it must overcome to draw in more supporters and hopefully influence public policy. Some of those hurdles include misconceptions about the kinds of people that want to end their lives and why people who have been diagnosed with terminal illness want to have the choice to take their own lives. To anyone who was watching and willing to consider her point of view, Maynard gave the right to die movement a significant push by dispelling some strong misconceptions.
In life many choices are not our own, but how we live our life is our choice. Maynard did not choose to have cancer invade her brain, but she did choose how to live her life after her diagnoses. After her diagnosis, Maynard remained doing the activities that had always made her life fulfilling—traveling, volunteering, and spending time with family and friends. Maynard made an informed choice to not let brain cancer kill her. She made the decision to choose how her life ends. And that’s one of the major aims of the right to die movement—that terminally ill patients ought to be able to choose how long they live with their disease and whether their disease will be the cause of their death. Disease takes away so many choices and puts people at the mercy of doctors, nurses, and most importantly it puts people at the mercy of their failing body. The right to die movements aims to take some of that power back.
Some opponents of the right to die movement believe that no one should choose to die. But for people in situations like Maynard’s situation the decision to die was made for her—by her disease. Rather than let her disease make the decisions for her, she exercised the ultimate act of autonomy and made the decision for herself. If Maynard were to let the disease kill her she would have been relinquishing the reigns of her life over to her brain cancer.
Of course since the right to die movement is concerned about autonomy, one could express her autonomy by choosing to live and let the disease take her life. This is not incompatible with the right to die movement as individuals like Nadin Naumann would lead us to believe in her article “My mom has the same brain cancer diagnosis as Brittany Maynard, she’s fighting to live.”
In Naumann’s condemnation of Maynard’s decision to die she tells the story of her mother who has the same brain cancer as Maynard but is choosing not to euthanize herself. After recalling the praise that Maynard received for “dying with dignity,” Naumann states “but what about people like my mom? How about the individual who chooses to fight knowing all the consequences that he or she could face?” What Naumann fails to mention is that the right to die movement does not aim to force all terminally ill people to kill themselves, rather that the choice to end their life should be a right that all terminally ill people should possess. The point is that the choice should be ours: to live with the disease and fight a noble fight, or to die before the disease kills us and have a noble death.
Lack of caregivers
There is also a misconception that people who want to end their lives want to do so because they don’t have anyone to care for them while their health declines. The image of a lonely, dying person is one that opponents of the right to life movement frequently call upon. The right to die movement needed Maynard because she showed us that this is not always the case. Maynard was surrounded by family—a husband, parents, brothers, and her husband’s parents. We can assume that her family would have been willing to care for her based on their active presence in her life before her diagnosis and after her diagnosis. Giving us an image of a loving, caring family that stands behind their loved one’s choice, whatever it may be, was needed to dispel misconceptions about the kinds of people who choose to end their lives.
Fear of death
Individuals who want to end their life have often been accused of fearing death with the right to die movement supporting their fear. For example, in regards to Maynard choice to die, one article states that she feared death, which led to her to a mistaken decision: “But taking one’s life out of fear of what life might bring is, at the very least, to be regretted. It was an understandable decision, but it was also the wrong decision. A case of cutting off your face to spite your nose.”
Fear of death is understandable. But what this article and others miss when they accuse terminally ill people of fearing death is the great courage needed to end one’s own life. It’s hard to imagine a person fearing death yet taking steps that she knows will end with her own death. Choosing to end one’s life is not a fear of death but a fear of the life you have left lacking such quality that it’s not a life that you recognize or a life that you want, but being forced to live it.
People who are terminally ill are forced to face their mortality in ways that people who are not terminally ill are not forced to face their mortality. We all know we are going to die one day. But the terminally ill are given a time frame for when they are going to die. They are told that they have a very limited amount of time before their disease will kill them. I imagine that would scare some people. It would certainly scare me. But making the decision to end one’s life has to be one of the greatest acts of facing that fear and I imagine not many people would be able to overcome this kind of fear.
When I think of a fear of death I imagine a person living in a hypoallergenic bubble, who sits at home afraid of life. I certainly don’t imagine someone like Maynard who chose to live out her last days living life to the fullest, doing those things that she always loved to do. I certainly don’t think of someone who chooses to end her life on her own terms, which is an image the right to die movement so desperately needed to dispel misconceptions about why terminally ill people choose to die.
Youth and Beauty
In our appearance driven society, movements need youth and beauty to be the face of their cause to get people to pay attention. This is why celebrities are often times the face of health and social justice movements (e.g. Angelina Jolie for child hunger and poverty, Emma Watson for feminism, and the list goes on and on). Brittany Maynard was articulate, intelligent, and college educated. But Maynard was also young and beautiful. She is also not the first to euthanize herself using right to die laws, but the media was drawn to her and to her story. To be clear, I’m not discrediting Maynard’s story. But the right to die movement needed a young and beautiful person who wanted to exercise her choice to end her life to show that it is not just the very old who want the right to die. The right to life movement needed a young and pretty face to draw people in and get them to listen.
Opponents of the right to die movement often used her age and beauty against Maynard, making statements like “but she’s so beautiful, why would she want to die?” Although misguided, even people who made these kinds of statements were drawn to Maynard’s story and you can’t sway the opinions of people who aren’t paying attention, regardless of the reason they’re paying attention. Unfortunately, sometimes this is what a movement needs to gain more momentum and unfortunately sometimes people only listen to the story if the person telling the story is aesthetically appealing.
The right to die movement needed Brittany Maynard to show others the true goals of the movement—being able to choose how we live and die and embracing our mortality, evidenced by making the choice to die. The right to die movement does not aim to euthanize every terminally ill patient. Its aim is to give people more power over their lives than their disease has.