The tragedy of Brittany Maynard
As a society, we cannot allow the value of life to be defined solely by a subjective, individual perception of its quality. All human life has value; whatever form it may take.
This is not the message Brittany Maynard and the Compassion & Choices group who popularised her story want to spread. If you missed the news, Brittany was a newly wed 29-year-old, diagnosed early this year with an aggressive brain cancer. Fearing a loss of autonomy and an imminent decrease in her quality of life, Brittany, her husband, and her mother moved to Oregon so that she could take advantage of the state’s legalised physician-assisted suicide.
In a video and article she published on CNN’s website and on her own webpage, she argues that life is only valuable for as long as the person living it believes that it fits their definition of “quality.” For Brittany this quality meant such things as living without chronic headaches, being able to speak clearly and coherently, and climbing mountains. She advocated that others be allowed to define their own quality of life, and to end their lives, as she did, when life no longer met their expectations.
This message is a dangerous one for society. While it may seem compelling to self sufficient, healthy adults the world over, they are not the only ones who will be affected by it. The terminally ill, the elderly, the depressed, the disabled, and the lonely will also hear it. They will hear that their lives are somehow deficient, somehow lacking in value. They will hear that to continue on, to live their lives, is to be a burden to their families and society. They will hear that the “brave” thing to do—as Brittany’s decision is described on her webpage—is to commit suicide.
Not so, you say? An Oregon Public Health report from just last year backs up this claim. It found that in 2013, 57 percent of people who availed themselves of physician-assisted suicide in Oregon said they were motivated by feelings of being a burden; this was up from just 12 percent who answered likewise in 1998, the year after physician-assisted suicide was legalised in the state.
When we create categories of people whose lives fall outside the protection of the law, we change the way we as a society view the value of those lives. We believe the Brittany Maynards of the world who tell us that life is only valuable if it is without pain, without difficulty. We believe it about ourselves, and we believe it about those around us.
Your aunt who was just told her cancer is incurable; your friend with the chronic headaches; your neighbour’s grandfather who has dementia—their lives have no value because they will be marked by pain and the need to rely on others.
How very tragic it will be if we allow our sorrow and sympathy at Brittany Maynard’s life and passing to lead us towards legislation that would make this true.