The Right-To-Die Effect

Brittany Maynard

I didn’t want to write about Brittany Maynard, because it’s hard to disagree with someone who is dying of cancer and not look (and feel) like a big jerk. But here I sit, trying to write about something else, and I just keep coming back to her story.

You’ve probably heard of Brittany. She is the young lady who has a severe brain tumor, was given a prognosis of six months to live, and chose to move to Oregon where she could legally decide to take her own life via prescribed medication, rather than waiting for the cancer to kill her. The day she originally chose when she would most likely end her life is this Saturday, but her latest video suggested that she may wait longer.

My heart aches for Brittany, and I have wept for her.  Granted, I have also wept at country music videos, so the weeping may not be saying a lot, but my point is that I understand and feel that it is an incredibly tragic situation. Although I disagree with her stance on policy regarding assisted suicide, I have absolutely no desire or right to condemn her personal decision, as I have not walked in her shoes or been inside her mind or her heart. Plus I’m not the Judge.

Plus there’s always that teeny weeny little bittiest possibility that I might be wrong.


surprised face


Yup. But as someone who has worked for the last five years in suicide prevention, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t very concerned about the messages on this topic that we, as a culture, are circulating. Messages like:

Some lives are more valuable than others.

I often facilitate a training called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, during which we ask participants to examine their own values and attitudes relating to suicide. We ask them to mark on a chart where their feelings lie on a spectrum from Agree to Disagree for a number of statements. One of the statements is “People have a right to suicide.”

When discussing this particular item, someone always brings up the case of a person who is terminally ill and suffering, and says that unlike the general population, such a person has a right to end his or her life.  And the trainer Emily acknowledges the statement by nodding her head and saying, “Other thoughts?” while turning to the rest of the group with her objective robot face.

But the inner Emily really wants to say, “But isn’t everyone who is thinking about suicide experiencing great pain and suffering? Isn’t everyone who is considering ending their life moving towards their inevitable demise anyway, as we all are? Isn’t saying that people who are dying faster or sooner have more of a right to kill themselves, sort of implying that their lives are not as much worth living as those who are young and healthy, in other words that they are not as valuable?” I am convinced that this message is both very prevalent and very concerning. Here’s another:

Ending your life early only affects you.

This is a radically individualistic point of view, but then, America is a radically individualistic country. Sure, it’s your life, but none of us live in a vacuum. Every action that we make influences others around us, at the very minimum by sending an implicit message. What message are we sending about the value of life for the aged and/or sick when we give them special permission to die?

There is value in comfort, but no value in suffering.

Suffering can bring us closer to God and to one another. It can give us a stronger understanding and voice to help others. It can refine our character. It can cause us to seek, and to find meaning in life. But sometimes we can’t see the value. When we are in pain, our bodies are crumbling and our life is running out, I’m sure it can seem pretty meaningless. But just because it looks meaningless to us, does that mean that it must, indeed, be meaningless? We see our small part of the world, but we are not omniscient. And as we lean more and more towards the idea that suffering is meaningless and without value, suicide becomes a more and more logical option, even for the physically healthy. Why bother with it?

It is brave to die on your own terms, but undignified to spend the end of your life living.

I understand that having a forecast of just six months to live can surely cause a person to want to gain some bit of control over their situation. But can we not make a difference in the world in just six months? Can we not do something meaningful, touch someone’s life, give our loved ones the sweetness of our presence, in one day? Can we not glorify God in even one moment? Isn’t it brave and dignified to try?

Protecting liberty is more important than protecting life.

I don’t actually believe that sanctioning the right-to-die protects liberty (See Reason #23). But I do value protecting life more than protecting liberty in most cases. I do so for several reasons. One is that if someone is dead, they aren’t free to make any choices, and if we are giving liberty to one set of humans at the expense of another set of humans, we are not supporting liberty or life, and we are definitely not supporting justice. I also value human life because I’m religious.



surprised face

I know – you’ve likely picked that up by now. But what I mean is that I do actually think that life is ordained by God, and as such is precious, and worth protecting, even if that means not sanctioning by law something that over 100 Americans do every day anyway, without the direct assistance of a physician. So that brings me to the next message that I hear frequently:

Religious perspectives have no place in policy decisions.

Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that our system is meant to have a clear wall of separation between church and state. So let’s say that arguments need to be secular in order to be valid for policy making.

Let’s look at one example of an argument that is widely considered secular, which is that if we allow assisted death in our profit-driven healthcare system, then people, particularly the elderly or those with disabilities, will be targeted for assisted suicide, which is much cheaper than treatment. Here’s an example of such an argument. But how do we determine that it would be wrong to pressure vulnerable people to choose assisted suicide over treatment? We determine it would be wrong because we value the lives and choices of people above the cost of healthcare. It is a moral decision based on a belief system that values life, even though the argument itself doesn’t refer directly to a deity, church or text.

Similarly, the very name of the agency advocating for assisted death (Compassion & Choices), evokes moral values that are also, believe it or not, Christian. They may also be part of other ethical codes of course, but my point is that they are based on our philosophical beliefs, not scientific study, not theory about what makes society function. Values. Right and wrong.

We can take out direct references to religion from our arguments, but that doesn’t change the foundation of the arguments, which are firmly rooted in our belief systems. So as hard as we try to relegate religion to the private sphere, we cannot remove our values from our policy arguments, and to say that an argument isn’t valid because it is based in a particular worldview is to say that no argument is valid.

And at this point I’m probably in way over my head, so let’s move on to the final message that concerns me:

Being unwavering in regards to religious values means that we are not compassionate.

Most of us hate to see people in pain, and so I completely understand why a lot of people support the right-to-die. And while suffering has meaning, we should still strive to alleviate it. That is often part of the meaning – we find in our suffering the kindness of strangers, the tenderness of loved ones, the goodness that exists when we are in our darkest moments. We try to meet each other’s needs, and show one another the love of God that way. And when suffering cannot be alleviated, we weep with those who weep.

But I don’t think that being compassionate means we have to sanction suicide. I think that it means loving people enough to consider their lives precious regardless of illness, age, life expectancy, class, creed or culture.


2 thoughts on “The Right-To-Die Effect

  1. Such a difficult subject. I can’t agree with the decision to take one’s own life, but have also never had brain cancer. I like your point though that all people considering that decision are experiencing great suffering. And then there are those who have survived a suicide attempt then changed their minds about it afterwards and were glad they were not successful. Some people considering suicide are not in their right minds. I don’t think it should ever be sanctioned by the medical community, the government or the insurance companies. If someone really wants to do it, they can do it without anyone else’s permission or approval. When you open that door to helping someone to their death, it can snowball into pressuring someone to their death.


    1. Yes, that’s a very good way to put it. After reading a lot of the responses to Brittany Maynard’s death I feel as though the pressure is already increasing. If people are sick and suffering, I think it would be very easy to get the impression that it would be braver and kinder to family members to end life early rather than stick it out so that loved ones would not have to watch the suffering, even if the person didn’t really want to die, or still had reasons to live. I also looked at suicide rates and noticed that all 5 states where assisted suicide is legal have rates higher than the national average. Not sure if there is a connection, but I can’t help but think that when we stop valuing human life because it contains suffering, we hurt everyone who might be considering suicide.


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