When Brittany Maynard made the decision to end her life on Nov. 1, she chose to enact a right basic to all sentient creatures, a right that should be as fundamental and protected as the freedom of speech and the right to bear arms.
The 29-year-old was diagnosed last January with grade 4 astrocytoma, a terminal brain cancer. In April doctors told her she had six months to live. Though she considered dying in a hospice, she ultimately came to a different decision.
“I quickly decided that death with dignity was the best option for me and my family,” she wrote in a CNN op-ed piece.
That choice necessitated that Maynard and her family relocate from California to Oregon, one of only three states—the others being Washington and Vermont—that have passed death with dignity laws, allowing physicians to prescribe terminally ill patients with life-ending drugs.
Maynard was an intelligent young woman who was faced with a terrible choice: end her life while she was still in relative control of her physical and mental faculties, or allow her disease to advance until her brain swelled and pressed against her skull, causing violent convulsions, followed by loss of speech, memory and other brain functions. Her family would have witnessed the slow stripping away of everything that made Maynard who she was, until there was only a vessel of flesh requiring costly around-the- clock care.
Maynard and her family were brave enough to accept that reality and, luckily, wealthy enough to be able to relocate. That’s a choice many families faced with the same situation do not have.
As witnessed by the small number of states where it is currently legal, the subject of physician-assisted death is one that remains largely taboo in this country. Though an increasing number of citizens appear to be in favor of some form of death with dignity legislation in their states, the controversy stirred by Maynard’s decision is a clear indication that many of the voices traditionally opposed to the act, due mainly to religious reasons, are still as fervent as ever.
Within days after Maynard’s death, a top Vatican official condemned her decision to die, calling it “an absurdity.” The National Right to Life Committee claimed that Maynard’s chosen non-profit, Compassion & Choices, had “exploited the illness of Brittany Maynard to promote legalization of doctor prescribed suicide…”
Brittany Maynard’s choice was anything but a rush to suicide. She repeatedly articulated her wish to live, explaining that the decision to end her life was related to the debilitating symptoms she was experiencing, not any preconceived death wish. The current law in Oregon requires that the terminally ill patient be mentally and emotionally competent before agreeing to physician-assisted death. They must undergo at least two psychiatric evaluations in order to ensure they’re not depressed, and thus fully capable of making such a decision.
As someone who has watched family members suffer through the ravages of terminal illnesses, and who understands my own precarious place in the world, I find the death with dignity option not only comforting but absolutely essential. What could possibly be more fundamental, more sacred even, than the right to chose how and when one ends their time on earth?
When the next legislative session begins in January, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire all appear set to initiate a death with dignity policy reform agenda. There is talk of similar legislative proposals in California and Nevada.
“My dream is that every terminally ill American has access to the choice to die on their own terms,” Maynard wrote on her website.
So let the Cardinals and the pundits have their say. In the end the choice isn’t up to men in white robes or political talking heads; it’s not up to God or Allah or Zeus. Whatever the law may say, the only real choice, the final one, is yours and mine.