Why Brittany Maynard made the wrong decision

Assisted suicide is morally abhorrent – even when it is understandable.

Kevin Yuill

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Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman suffering with a particularly aggressive brain tumour, ended her life on 1 November 2014 in Oregon. Having been told in April that she had less than six months to live, Maynard and her husband relocated to Oregon, one of three US states that allows assisted suicide.

This was a tragic story and it would be churlish to feel anything but sadness for Maynard, her family and her friends. Nobody wanted Maynard to die. And not all suicides are wrong. 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.

Many will say that no one should judge Maynard for her decision, that it was her life and her choice, and that no one could understand the kind of suffering she had been through. Such objections are misplaced. Brittany Maynard wanted us all to judge her situation, to approve of her action. It was Maynard herself who decided to go public with her suicide. She approached Compassion & Choices, the well-funded proponent of the legalisation of assisted suicide in the US, and offered to tell her story in order to support legalisation. The result was a slickly produced video that has been viewed by nearly 11million people. Maynard positioned her suicide as part of the campaign to legalise assisted suicide; we were invited to judge.

The video offers a highly personal story, featuring the 29-year-old school teacher talking of her abandoned hopes and dreams that will never be fulfilled. It is full of sadness, of loss, and is enormously affecting. But – and this is characteristic of assisted-suicide campaigns – the video relies on the audience’s vicarious suffering to convince them of the case for legalising assisted suicide, rather than offering any substantive arguments. ‘Understand my personal circumstances and you will agree with my decision’, says Maynard in the video. ‘For people to argue against this choice for sick people really seems evil to me… They try to mix it up with suicide and that’s really unfair.’

Despite the enormous emotional pressure to agree with Maynard’s decision, we shouldn’t. Why was her action regrettable? It is based on an unreal understanding of death. As Kevin Fitzpatrick of Not Dead Yet, an organisation for disabled people opposed to legalising assisted suicide, noted perceptively, death is the end of all the possibilities of life. To be dead is more disabling than any injury or disease. Fitzpatrick remarks that ‘[w]e have lost our sense of “terrible beauty”’, whereby even in the depths of suffering and horror ‘there can still be something there for us to find profound, even beautiful’. Suicide is disturbing because it cuts short the possibility for human interaction, for participation in one another’s lives.

The decision to commit suicide would be more understandable if physical pain with no prospect of alleviation was the motivating force behind it. But the figures from Oregon indicate that pain is not even in the top-five reasons why Oregonians take their lives. Instead, the principal motivation is fear – of loss of autonomy, of missing out on life’s enjoyments, of loss of dignity, of loss of bodily functions, and of being a burden. Maynard herself said she feared the effects of gradual disintegration. ‘The hair on my scalp would have been singed off. My scalp would be left covered with first-degree burns. My quality of life, as I knew it, would be gone.’

Why, in a society where celebrities are condemned for such banal actions as smoking, using bad language, or dieting too much, are we not allowed to say that someone who takes the most profound and awful decision – to end their life – is wrong? That is not to say that Maynard’s decision was not understandable, given the horrific circumstances she found herself in. But understandable is not the same as right.

But we must ask the question: who is more wrong? The person who jumps from the building ledge or those who shout ‘jump’ from the ground? It is the campaign Maynard supported that is much more profoundly wrong. Suicides have been part of every human society to date. But to offer death as a menu choice delivers a despairing, defeatist message to everyone left behind, let alone those who continue to fight on living ‘undignified’ lives.

With suicide, there is no volenti non fit injuria (‘doing harm only to oneself’). The casual destruction of human life should shock and abhor us. And if the law becomes indifferent to assisted suicide, we must continue to reject it on moral grounds.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland. His latest book, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case Against Legalisation, is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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Topics Politics