Brittany Maynard’s Storybook Ending

“Brittany Maynard died with dignity from brain cancer,” read the headline of a press release issued by the organization Compassion & Choices. Suffering from a vicious form of brain cancer and near the end, the 29-year-old died Saturday surrounded by family and friends in an Oregon home to which she moved so that she could take advantage of Oregon’s assisted-suicide law. May she rest in peace.

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If Maynard died with dignity, then does that mean that others who do not choose to choreograph their death lack dignity? There’s no getting around the language advocates have chosen; “death with dignity” suggests that there is something undignified about holding on to life. You’re Superman and ready to die with a smile; that’s dignity. Or you are a pathetic hanger-on.

Maynard may be the first millennial social-media-assisted suicide in America. We’ve all seen her wedding photos and that sweet close-up of a young woman with a puppy. She was beautiful and adventurous and kind and full of life. Marilyn Golden of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund fears that Maynard’s storyline will create “suicide contagion” as other young people, even those who are not terminally ill, see her as a model. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “more than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage.”

Young supporters have taken up Maynard’s cause. When I wrote on her case weeks ago, I received a number of emails that made the same point: How Maynard dies should be her choice.

I agree — and always have. Maynard always had the ability to kill herself, and no law could stop her. Some 40,000 Americans kill themselves every year. What Maynard didn’t have was a California law that allowed physicians to participate so that she could choreograph her end to be almost as picture-perfect as her wedding.

California law does provide other options, and they truly are compassionate. Maynard could have chosen hospice. She would have been free to refuse treatment, with or without hospice. Palliative sedation would have been there to ease the pain and circumvent the painful death she feared. She could have stayed at her East Bay home. Her family could have been by her side.

There are no guarantees with that approach. But it does mean that the medical system isn’t upended so physicians migrate from healers to end-of-life concierges. Most importantly, the focus of medical care in California remains on treating disease and relieving suffering. The state does not embrace the notion that wanting to live is undignified or that sick people should prefer to die than endure seizures or loss of motor control.

When families lose a young person, they go crazy with grief; any distraction, even anger, can be welcome. I fully appreciate how a young woman would want to find a cause to give meaning to her end. But if Maynard’s death helps to change California law, be clear that the brave new order will spell abandonment for lonely, vulnerable people. These people need friends and family who make them feel wanted, not undignified.

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected].

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