She is 29, newly married, attractive, with expressive eyes and an easy smile. Brittany Maynard could be your daughter, your neighbor, your friend, your sister. Watch her on TV — she seems to be everywhere these days — and you’ll walk away with the impression of a young woman full of promise.
But Maynard is dying of a very aggressive brain tumor, and how she plans to deal with this horrific death sentence has stirred up one of the most controversial subjects of our time.
With the help of a doctor and lethal medication, Maynard is going to end her life Nov. 1 in an upstairs bedroom of her Portland, Ore. house, days after celebrating her husband’s Oct. 26 birthday. She plans to be surrounded by her husband, her mother, her stepfather and her best friend.
Some call her brave. Others accuse her of cowardice. Me, I can’t decide.
“I am not suicidal,” she wrote in an essay for CNN. “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.”
Maynard is, suddenly and inexorably, the new, fresh face of death — actually the face of physician-assisted suicide. As a result, people who believe themselves too young, too vibrant, too busy are now confronting their mortality. A volunteer advocate for Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group for terminally ill patients, Maynard is helping to mobilize support for death-with-dignity laws in states that don’t have any.
Her story is heartbreaking for many reasons, not the least of which is her obvious youth and her contagious passion. Her choice to die at a prescribed time, however, is not as unique as we think. Others, including a Canadian lawyer and a Seattle writer, received attention for the same decision recently. Me Before You, a wonderful book by Jojo Moyes scheduled to be released as a movie next year, also deals with this touchy subject in the guise of a poignant love story.
Imagining the specter of prolonged pain without the possibility of recovery, I can understand the choices some make to end it quickly, for themselves and for their families.
Yet, something about such a decision — and I can’t quite put my finger on it — alarms me. Is it respect for the gift of a life that is not mine to throw away? Or, is it hope beating its iron wings in a plea for one last miracle?
The case of Brittany Maynard comes less than a month after a nonpartisan committee appointed by the Institute of Medicine called for sweeping changes to how we as a country handle end-of-life care. The current system, concludes the 507-page report, “Dying in America,” often does too much for the terminally ill when they actually want less. At a time when life expectancy in the U.S. has reached a record high, the debate on how and when we die has become a divisive one. How ironic!
Healthy now with nary a physical worry, I can’t definitively say what I would choose if faced with Maynard’s prognosis. That said, I understand myself well enough to know that I like being in control. Having witnessed the long agony of terminally ill loved ones, I very well might choose as Maynard has: to journey to the next world on my own terms, on my own time.
Given only one death, is that a conceit I deserve?
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana