Brittany Maynard is a Hero

Like most heroes, Brittany Maynard didn’t consider her actions to be anything particularly heroic. She felt that she did what any person might reasonably do, or what any person should have the right to do.

After turning 29, Brittany was diagnosed in January of this year (2014) with stage 4 glioblastoma – a type of brain cancer. It was very aggressive and terminal. Her prognosis was six months or less. Her doctors bluntly described what she could expect, and she understood it to be a steady and increasingly unstable decline to the end. She would endure constant headaches, nausea, vomiting and drowsiness. Depending on how her tumor grew, she would lose speech, memory, vision, motor skills, her body would be wracked with increasingly intense painful and paralyzing seizures, and toward the end she would have difficulty doing essential things like breathing. Glioblastoma is difficult to treat at the best of times, and an aggressive case such as hers grows faster than the treatment can affect it. There was no chance of survival.
She and her new husband moved from California to Oregon, because Oregon adopted a Death With Dignity Act in 1997 that allows for and regulates physician-assisted dying. California has no such legislation. Just the simple knowledge that Brittany had some control over her fate and that she could die peacefully and didn’t have to end her life with great suffering gave her a tremendous peace of mind and immediately improved her quality of life.
Brittany managed to beat her prognosis by several months, but she knew she was still facing a painful and undignified end to her young life. In a short period of time, even in a state that allowed Death With Dignity, she faced obstacles and the stigma of disapproval of her decision. While it is legally acceptable in Oregon, the idea of euthanasia still carries a social taboo that presents a major obstacle for those who might be considering it. Brittany realized she had a great opportunity to elevate the level of conversation around euthanasia in the United States. She began a campaign, speaking publicly about euthanasia and her choice. What vaulted her into the spotlight was a feature article in People magazine. Her YouTube videos on the subject have been seen millions of times.
Brittany had decided to end her life on her own terms on November 1. Her first YouTube video on the subject was posted October 6:

  

Brittany explained, “I think in the beginning my family members wanted a miracle; they wanted a cure for my cancer.”. Of course. Who wouldn’t want that for a loved one? That is and should always be the first consideration. But, the reality soon dawned on everyone that this situation was irreversible, there would be no miracle, and the only question about the outcome was how long and how painful the suffering would be. She said, “When we all sat down and looked at the facts, there isn’t a single person that loves me that wishes me more pain and more suffering.”

The headaches and seizures were becoming a regular part of her day, and getting worse. In spite of that, on October 29, Brittany decided she may postpone her death. In a second video, she said, “I still feel good enough, and I still have enough joy — and I still laugh and smile with my friends and my family enough — that it doesn’t seem like the right time right now.”

  

While Brittany was doing all this publicly, the pro-life movement campaigned against her. When the second video was released on October 29, pro-lifers rejoiced and redoubled their efforts to decry her decision and try to convince her to change her mind. On Sunday, November 2nd, however, it was reported that Brittany had exercised her choice to end her life the previous day. The pro-lifers lost their freaking minds. Even the Vatican has now weighed in on the subject, condemning Brittany’s decision as “absurd”.

Before all this, however, a rather self-righteous and insensitive counter-blog post had arisen, written by Maggie Karner. Karner also has stage 4 glioblastoma and has decided – rather proudly, I might add – that she will live life to the bitter, ugly end. Karner is a “Jesus Take the Wheel” kind of Lutheran Evangelical Christian, involved in the ministry. She is also a leader of “sanctity of life programs” and sits on the board of the National Pro-Life Religious Council. There is little subtlety in her position.
In her own blog, Karner makes a lot of assumptions about Brittany and her decision to die on her own terms, in an “anything you can do, I have done better” type blog post. For example, Brittany expressed a love of travel. Karner mentions this, and then boasts about her own missionary work in 11 countries, and the extreme levels of suffering she witnessed (and experienced vicariously, I suppose). This is mentioned to assert that Brittany is relatively inexperienced in the world of suffering, to suggest that she is “wimping out” and undermines the soundness of Brittany’s choice.
Karner dismissed Brittany’s decision as “emotional”, motivated by fear, and criticized her video as slick and professionally produced.
In one final example that I will take from Karner’s blog, Karner states, “It’s interesting that Maynard steadfastly refuses to refer to her decision as an act of suicide, even though she will, quite literally, take her own life.”. Karner hints at either cowardice on Brittany’s part to use harsh terms, or an inability to grasp the reality of her situation. Karner knows that the supporters of euthanasia or assisted dying or dignity in dying refrain from using the word “suicide” because it is packed with all kinds of other baggage – baggage created by people like Karner. Not only that, but there is a whole universe of other considerations that go around the word “suicide” that just are not applicable to the euthanasia aspect, which I will get to in a moment. It is a sloppy and inaccurate word to use, so it is not used. I suspect that Karner understands this, but it didn’t prevent her from taking a cheap shot at Brittany Maynard. It’s a very distasteful blog post, dripping with that smarmy and insincere “I’m saying this because I love you” attitude that so many evangelicals seem to affect so effortlessly.
There are a few key concepts that Karner doesn’t seem to understand. The most obvious seems to be the idea of “dignity”.
“Dignity” is a subjective term. What you may consider dignified, another person may not. The thing is, both would be considered correct as there is no objective or global gold standard for dignity. I would thus think that the properly dignified response is to respect each other’s soundly made and deeply personal decision. It seems Karner can’t bring herself to do that, taking the opportunity instead to preach her views that all life is a sacred gift to be protected, and certainly not to be terminated, under any circumstances.
Secondly, there’s the concept of self-determination. It is an essential component to other things like free will. I looked up three definitions of self-determination. The primary definition for all three were remarkably similar:
  • determination of one’s own fate or course of action without compulsion; free will (American Heritage Dictionary)
  • the power or ability to make a decision for oneself without influence from outside (Collins English Dictionary)
  • freedom to live as one chooses, or to act or decide without consulting others (Webster’s College Dictionary)
With all aspects of the “pro life” campaigns against abortion, contraception and euthanasia, the pro-life supporters seek to impose their religious beliefs or their worldview on others. It is not satisfactory for them to merely observe their beliefs on their own, everyone else must follow suit. As with all of these religious objections, I offer the same answer. Don’t like abortions? Fine, don’t get one. Problem solved. See how easy that was? Don’t like gay marriage? Great, try not to marry a gay person. Most people manage to do this with little difficulty, some even on the first try. The right to self-determination says that this is precisely where your influence should and does end.
It is wonderful that Karner has the freedom to die exactly the way she wants to. Nothing about Brittany’s decision affected any aspect of Karner’s life or death. Why, then, does Karner hold such disdain for Brittany’s decision? I can only conclude it is the result of Karner’s deeply held religious beliefs, and her utter inability to keep those beliefs to herself. Giving Brittany Maynard access to professional assistance in ending her life doesn’t mean that anyone else has to take that same path. It is a choice.
Just as Karner criticized Brittany for the “professionalness” of her video, hinting at methods of manipulation and marketing, Karner herself on October 29 – when Brittany released her postponement video – took advantage of the sudden swell of public interest and released her own video:

  

The video provides another example of how Karner simply doesn’t grasp Brittany’s perspective, or the difference between suicide and dying with dignity.

Karner said, “Remember earlier this year when Robin Williams took his own life? The shock, all the remembrances on TV… the world lost some of its beauty and joy that day. Brittany, if you take your life, the world will lose some of its beauty, again.” She doesn’t understand the difference between the two situations.

Robin Williams’ death was premature. It was a decision made by an agonized mind. Death was an option that he chose to exercise. With Brittany, and with two other women I will talk about in a moment, their deaths were not premature. Death was imminent and unavoidable. All were in the terminal stages of a debilitating disease. Death was not an option for them. How they faced that death was the option they chose to exercise.

Karner’s disconnect is further demonstrated by the statement of “the world lost some of its beauty and joy that day”. In the case of Robin Williams, yes. The beauty of what he had done and accomplished in this world remains with us, but the beauty that the world lost was whatever contributions he would have made in the future. With these women, however, the beauty of their lives to that point would also forever remain, but from their perspective, their “future contribution” was a steady retreat into an increasingly unrecognizable and undignified souvenir of the greater beauty that they once were, slowly becoming a distorted memento of themselves. And that was something that they considered unacceptable.

I never did understand the two-minded way that the religious view death. Even when I was religious it never made sense to me. If your objective is to live a good life and get to whatever afterlife reward is promised to those who follow the prescribed route, then why do the religious fight so hard to stay alive – remain here on this earth – wage pitched battles against our inevitable death at all costs, or keep loved ones alive long beyond any viable recovery? One would think that ushering someone to their eternal reward should be preferred. It always seemed to me that a Christian’s drive to postpone death was either entirely selfish or cowardly in the sense of lacking the courage of their beliefs. I still can’t get my head around it. But I digress.
Thankfully, we are seeing more people bringing their experiences with euthanasia to the public forum. The web site deadatnoon.com chronicles Gillian Bennett’s experiences with Dementia and her decision to end her life. The newspaper The Globe and Mail did a major feature article on Kim Teske, her experience with Huntington’s Disease and her decision to end her life. Both of these women are Canadian. Both of these women chose to end their life before their respective illnesses overtook them and made life unbearable. Gillian lived in British Columbia and Kim lived in Ontario. Suicide is not illegal in Canada. Assisting someone to commit suicide, however, is. Nobody, not even doctors, husbands or other family members can aid in any way. Gillian ended her life rather romantically, on a foam mattress atop a cliff overlooking the ocean – her favourite spot. She took a slug of whiskey, and some Nembutal diluted in water, with her supportive husband by her side. Kim, however, chose a more difficult route. Surrounded by her supportive family, she slowly starved herself to death. A horrible experience, to be sure. Support for professional assistance in dying is growing in Canada. A recent Ipsos-Reid Poll showed that 84% of Canadians support the legalization of assisted dying. The Supreme Court of Canada is currently considering a case that challenges whether Canadians have the right to seek professional help to end their own lives. Support for the movement is growing in the UK as well.
Gillian made a comment on her web site that I think counters Karner quite well. “Understand that I am giving up nothing that I want by committing suicide. All I lose is an indefinite number of years of being a vegetable in a hospital setting, eating up the country’s money but having not the faintest idea of who I am. Each of us is born uniquely and dies uniquely. I think of dying as a final adventure with a predictably abrupt end. I know when it’s time to leave and I do not find it scary.”
The only thing that should be criminal about dying with dignity is denying someone’s right to it. We need to rise above religious prejudices and politics and start treating each other with simple human decency and respect. After all, as the Campaign for Dignity in Dying says, “An assisted dying law would not result in more people dying, but in fewer people suffering.”
If you don’t agree with euthanasia, then fine. Die however you like. Nobody will try to stop you if you want to cling to every last drop of life, no matter the quality of it. Your opinion does not trump my right to self-determination, and self-determination includes self-termination.

For Karner, she sees dignity in preserving life, no matter the cost and no matter the quality of that life, by defiantly but ultimately futilely fighting back until the bitter and inevitable end as the cancer consumes her brain. …And that’s fine. She’s welcome to it, and nobody wants to take that away from her. For Brittany, she saw dignity in dying on her own terms, before the symptoms of her brain cancer made living intolerable, and not letting the cancer in her brain determine her loved ones’ last memories of her. …And that’s fine, too.

(This is Dileas’s second article on Death With Dignity and the Right to Die.)

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