Maynard's death not ours to judge
Last week, Brittany Maynard died. She had been diagnosed with a stage four glioblastoma, a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer, several months before her death. On Nov. 1, she ended her own life using a mix of sedatives and upper respiratory-system depressants prescribed to her by a doctor under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. I’d like to advance a potentially controversial opinion on her decision: It’s nobody’s business but her own.
Maynard chose to bring her illness and her death into the public consciousness in a very deliberate way. She wanted to open up the conversation about medically-driven suicide, and she certainly did. However, I don’t think that her public discussion of her choice to end her life makes that choice any less intensely personal.
After Maynard’s announcement, replies abounded from other people who suffered from terminal forms of cancer, such as Maggie Karner and Kara Tippets. Both Karner and Tippets pleaded with Maynard not to end her own life; Karner argued that Maynard should not deny her family the opportunity to care for her as she died, and Tippets argued that suffering can be a beautiful experience, not something to fear. Nadin Naumann wrote about her mother’s struggles with Maynard’s same disease, and argued that her mother’s decision to try to live as long as possible was the right one, because the experiences that they’d had together outweighed her mother’s suffering.
All of these experiences — all of these choices — are personal.
I don’t think that Naumann’s mother’s experience is comparable to Maynard’s, or Tippets’s, or Karner’s. Each person’s experience with death and dying is unique and, ultimately, private. For Tippets and Karner, dying with dignity means living as long as they can and enduring suffering to be with their loved ones. For Maynard, dying with dignity meant ending her life before her disease robbed her of everything she was.
Maynard had the right to choose the time and place of her own dying. Her glioblastoma was destroying her brain. Maynard would have suffered increasingly violent seizures; her ability to speak, her memories, her personality — all of these essential parts of her would have been profoundly damaged. In one of her interviews with CNN, just after she went public with her decision, Maynard described moments when she would look at her husband and not remember his name. Maynard was going to spend the last months of her life suffering. There is no immorality in wanting to avoid that end. Equally, there is beauty in Tippetts’s and Karner’s respective decisions to live with cancer for as long as they can.
Many of the arguments leveled against Maynard’s decision have relied on the concept that Maynard owes someone something — either her family her presence, God her faith, or the opinions of others her attention. A few enterprising souls even suggested to Maynard that she freeze some of her eggs so her husband could have children without her.
This last suggestion, for me, raises the question of how much Maynard’s gender impacted the way this controversy played out in the public sphere. If Maynard’s husband, Dan Diaz, had been the one diagnosed with brain cancer, there may have been a lot less discussion of him owing anyone anything. Culturally, we have a habit of expecting women to shoulder suffering without complaint or anger. Maynard’s suicide defies this cultural expectation we have of women, which is part of the reason it makes us uncomfortable. But regardless of gender identity, every person’s decision in a case like this — a guarantee of a long, slow decline, followed by a painful death — is achingly personal. In her article, Naumann asked: “How about the friends and family that are affected by their loved one’s diagnosis? Shouldn’t they get a say in this?” In my opinion? No. They shouldn’t.
It’s important to note that in Maynard’s case, her mother and husband did have a say in her decision, and they supported it. But even if they hadn’t, the decision ultimately would have still been Maynard’s alone. The only obligations Brittany Maynard — or anyone, really — had in her final days were to her own self.
Dying from a terminal illness is a messy, painful process. For some people, that experience offers the opportunity for greater personal or religious enlightenment or for closeness with their families. For others, it’s just long, drawn-out suffering. Choosing one of these paths over another is neither courage nor cowardice. Your death will be your business. Brittany Maynard’s was hers.