Several readers have asked me to discuss the Brittany Maynard story. Your wish is my command.
For those who somehow aren’t aware, Brittany Maynard (right) is a young woman, only three years older than me, who has been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of brain cancer. Doctors informed her that she could not be cured, and even if the most advanced treatments available were pursued, death was inevitable in a matter of months. Brittany decided to move to Oregon to take advantage of its assisted suicide law, and plans to take the lethal medication on November 1. In partnership with an advocacy group, she created a video about her decision, which has been covered by media across the nation and the world over the past week. (As just one example, see this Washington Post article.)
Secular Pro-Life does not often write about end-of-life issues. Of course, we recognize that every human life is valuable, including the lives of the disabled, the terminally ill, and people considering suicide. But traditionally, abortion has been our primary focus. So forgive me if this post rambles a bit.
First of all, I would like to express my opinion that Brittany Maynard is brave. This places me in conflict with Christian pro-life commentator Matt Walsh, who writes:
If you are saying that it is dignified and brave for a cancer patient to kill themselves, what are you saying about cancer patients who don’t? What about a woman who fights to the end, survives for as long as she can, and withers away slowly, in agony, until her very last breath escapes her lungs?
Is that person not brave? Is that person not dignified? I thought we applaud that kind of person. I thought we admire her courage and tenacity. Sorry, you can’t advance two contradictory narratives at once.
But this misses the point. I don’t admire Maynard because she plans to end her life. I admire her because she is somehow able to go public about what has to be the most devastating situation she’s ever encountered, knowing that she’s going to be the topic of internet controversy, knowing that random bloggers she’s never met are going to write about her (sorry), and somehow she recorded that video without breaking down into sobs. I definitely would not be able to do that. That takes an incredible amount of self-confidence. If she had instead chosen to fight to the end, and had broadcast that story, I’d be just as impressed.
Assisted suicide raises concerns that are distinct from those of abortion. Abortion always takes the life of someone who cannot consent; that’s not true of assisted suicide. I’m willing to entertain the idea that assisted suicide in the terminally ill is not prima facie wrong, which I realize is a highly unorthodox position for a pro-lifer to take. I’m reminded of my recent article about perinatal hospice, in which I wrote that
in situations where the child is bound to die within days, hours, or even minutes of birth, abortion may be viewed not as homicide, but as a mere matter of timing. You can still argue that it’s wrong, but at the very least, we must acknowledge that abortion in such cases is ethically murkier than the typical abortion chosen for socioeconomic reasons.
Maynard makes an analogous point when she states:
I’ve had the medication for weeks. I am not suicidal. If I were, I would have consumed that medication long ago. I do not want to die. But I am dying. And I want to die on my own terms.
I cannot begin to imagine what she’s going through. The only positive I can see here is that she seems to have an incredibly supportive husband, family, and friends.
The problem is, not everyone does.
As I said, abortion and assisted suicide are unique issues, but we certainly can draw upon our experiences with legalized abortion to make some predictions about legalized euthanasia. We know from the abortion context that “choice” (and Maynard uses the language of “choice”) can very quickly mutate into coercion.
No man is an island. We are deeply influenced by others, especially family, and especially when we are in a vulnerable state—as when we’ve been shocked by an unplanned pregnancy or a cancer diagnosis. We’ve seen women forced into abortions by the fathers of their unborn children. We’ve seen underage girls coerced by their statutory rapists, and sometimes, sadly, even by their own parents. We’ve seen mothers of all ages manipulated by abortion “counselors” who refuse to divulge accurate information about what takes place during pregnancy. And above all, we’ve seen women forced into abortion by economic circumstances. Legal abortion clearly has worsened those problems, not solved them.
How do we prevent similar complications from arising in the context of assisted suicide? How do we make sure that vulnerable people are not unduly influenced by family members, by overly pessimistic doctors, or by the potential financial burden of a longer life? In short: how can we create a law that allows assisted suicide for people like Brittany Maynard, without catching others in its trap?
I’m very skeptical that it’s possible. And until someone shows me differently, I have to err on the side of protecting those who want to live every last day.