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Brittany Maynard’s Assisted Suicide Decision: Choosing Quality of Life Over Quantity

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Brittany Maynard 1

Late Sunday evening, I was saddened to learn of Brittany Maynard’s death by assisted suicide via social media.  Like many of us, I became aware of Brittany’s story earlier in October when a video about her making the decision to end her life on her own terms went viral on social media.  Her story was significant to me because she and I are the same age, and I could not phantom making such a permanent, life-ending decision as she did.  Her strength and courage to come forward with her truth resonated with me as an advocate, and I wanted to discuss her choice, and the controversy surrounding it.

Being Young with a Terminal Illness:  Brittany’s Reality:

Brittany had been diagnosed with stage 4 malignant brain tumor, believed to have been glioblastoma.  She received the prognosis that she had only six months to live by her doctors.  Brittany stated that she did not desire to spend the last remaining weeks and months of her life in excruciating pain from her illness, nor have her loved ones endure the heartache of witnessing her spiraling demise.

Brittany decided to take charge of her life, and end it on her terms.  She and her family moved from California to Oregon, a state where she would be able to carry out her end-of-life wishes.  In Oregon, Brittany could legally die with medication prescribed under the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.  Under the Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law, an individual must meet the following requirements under the Act:  be capable of making such a decision, be an adult, live in the state, and had been diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months.  Brittany’s medical case fell within these parameters.  Four other states in America, Washington State, Montana, Vermont, and New Mexico, also have mandates that allows patients to seek assistance from doctors to fulfill their right to die wishes.

Brittany shared her controversial decision to end her life on October 6, 2014 in a video uploaded on YouTube, which had over 9.5 million page views at the time of this article.  In her video, she explained her diagnosis in detail, and how she planned to die:

I plan to be surrounded by my immediate family .. I will die upstairs in my bedroom that I share with my husband (…) and pass peacefully with some music I like in the background.

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Brittany’s Plans to Die, & the Announcement of Her Death:

Brittany initially had planned to die on Saturday, November 1st, two days after her husband’s birthday on Thursday, October 30th.  It was reported earlier in that week in another YouTube video posted on her website, the Brittany Maynard Fund, that she was pondering with the idea of postponing the date due to her current health status.  (The second video released by Brittany has been viewed over 2.2 million times.):

I still feel good enough and I still have enough joy and I still laugh and smile with my family and friends enough that it doesn’t seem like the right time right now … But it will come, because I feel myself getting sicker. It’s happening each week.

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However, on Sunday, the public was informed that Brittany had kept with her original plan, and died peacefully on Saturday in her Portland home surrounded by her family and friends, in a statement released by the non-profit organization, Compassion and Choices.

Those within the organization stated that Brittany suffered “increasingly frequent and longer seizures, severe head and neck pain, and stroke-like symptoms.”  Due to this, she chose to take the “aid-in-dying medication she received months ago.”  Before her life ended, Brittany posted the following goodbye message on Facebook:

Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love. Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me … but would have taken so much more. … The world is a beautiful place, travel has been my greatest teacher, my close friends and folks are the greatest givers. I even have a ring of support around my bed as I type … Goodbye world. Spread good energy. Pay it forward!

Why Brittany’s Story & Decision Affects Millennials:  

Thinking about dying or ending one’s life in the manner that Brittany had done, is not typically on the minds of 20 and 30 somethings like myself, or considered to be a topic that is associated with our age group.  In our society, youth is associated with vigor, invincibility, life that had just began.  Death, or choosing to take one’s life, is jarring to that imagery, and difficult to comprehend.  To hear someone our age who looked “healthy” and so full of life and possibilities state firmly that they no longer wanted to live was shocking to many of us.  It forced Millennials, myself included, to face our mortality straight on, and realize that what happened to Brittany could easily happen to us – being young does not make you insusceptible from terminal illnesses.  To realize that we will not live forever and/or have the same quality of health we have currently are facts that we all understand to be true, but when you have more years ahead of you than behind at this point, they are not comforting realities to digest.

Public Opinion as to How Brittany’s Story Affects Us

Some noted that Brittany’s candidness and advocacy as a Millennial about right-to-die laws has transformed the debate about this topic simply by changing the audience of the debate to young people.

Others believed that “condoning” suicide or physician-assisted suicide sends the wrong message to young people in this county, especially those who are living with physical and psychological challenges or chronic illnesses.

Brittany’s choice has all of us, regardless of age or health status, discussing and conducting self evaluations about this emotionally-charged and controversial topic, and what would we do if we were in her shoes.

The Disabled Community’s Response to Right to Die Laws:

This topic also evoked a great number of emotions from those within the disabled community.  Every major disability rights organization that has taken a position on physician-assisted suicide has opposed it.  The reason being was when some leaders within these entities became more educated and dived into the nitty-gritty of these right-to-die policies, they felt that refusing to support such initiatives was the appropriate course of action.  I was surprised to learn of this oppositional view, but I do understand how these organizations could take this position.  Here is why:

The main concern for those with disabilities when it comes to right-to-die/assisted suicide policies is the possible abuse of such legislation by those who are in positions of authority and decision-making – from parents, guardians, caregivers who are responsible for the care and well-being of those with disabilities, to medical and helping professionals delivering care and services.  There are individuals with these groupings who do not believe that disabled lives matter or are valuable, and that allowing a disabled person to “suffer” extreme pain is inhumane.  In their eyes, it would be better to end the lives of these individuals than for their loved ones to bear watching their painful demise.  In this sense, the “comfortability” of loved ones trumps a disabled individual’s right to live.

The disabled community has expressed its outrage about such thinking in recent headlining cases where relatives made the executive decision to end a disabled person’s life without that disabled person having a say, or being allowed to communicate their wishes, and it was all legal under the mandates.  For individuals with disabilities, it is not the mere existence of these mandates that trouble us; it is the fear that these provisions could be used to justify the mercy killings of disabled people.  In my opinion, that is a very real and justifiable concern, speaking as both a disabled person and helping professional.

My Stance on Brittany’s Choice & the Right to Die Debate:

On my Facebook page, I shared the headlining news about Brittany’s death, and was asked to share my thoughts about the matter.  Here was part of my response:

I studied end of life issues in my MSW program, & this isn’t a decision you make lightly.

I do support her decision as well because quality of life means more for some folks than quantity of life.  Honestly, if my disability got worse as I get older to the point where I wasn’t able to enjoy life fully or managed the pain, I would consider this. Yes, she was young, but she also knew that her illness would rob her of more years.  Why prolong the inevitable, esp. when the end would be agonizing?  Her decision to end her life on her own terms is powerful, and courageous.

Right To Die 1I took the end-of-life academic specialization in graduate school, and right-to-die, assisted suicide, and euthanasia were topics we discussed in this concentration.  It was here where I became aware of what these terms meant, and why understanding not only the legality, but also why someone who would choose to end their lives by their own terms.

I understand the religiosity perspective of those who are against assisted suicide; however, as a Christian, it is not my place to judge the actions of someone who has made the conscious decision to end their lives that is right for them.  Quantity of life does not mean that the quality is equal to where the person would like for it to be.  For some, quality of life trumps quantity; if they can no longer enjoy the activities and interactions they hold dear to be of importance to them, then they would rather die with dignity than be trapped in a body that hindered them.

Personal Reflection

Personally, if my disability progressed to a state where I was incapable of caring for myself independently, or unable to interact with my environment without being in agonizing pain, I would consider the right-to-die option.  It would not be a choice I make haphazardly; I would consult the opinions of medical professionals; discuss with those dearest to me; ensure that all of my wishes regarding my property and such were legally situated; and contact spiritual advisors to help me sort out this option from a religious perspective.  I love living this disabled life, challenges and all, but I also love the kind of well-being and independence I possess – to no longer care for myself in the manner I am used to would be tortuous to me not only physically, but emotionally and mentally as well.  The emotional distress of living such an impaired life would probably be more detrimental more than the physical ailments, frankly.  So yes, quality of life means more to me than quantity, and this also means that I do support right-to-die initiatives, which may go against the large majority of opinion of those in the disabled community.

Final Thoughts:  

One imperative point I want to make:  unless you find yourself in the same situation, you cannot judge Brittany’s, and anyone else’s, decisions to end their lives in this manner.  To judge means that you have closed your minds, ears, and hearts to understanding how someone could take this action, and instead, you refuse to support them in the self-determination process.  Supporting does not mean that you have to agree with what they aim to do; it simply means that you will be there for that person in any way that they need you to be during their end-of-life journey.  Persons who have reached such a conclusion do not need, nor have room for, criticisms; what they desire most from us is our unconditional love and compassion, which should be given without reservations.

Speak Out!:

What are your thoughts about Brittany’s death?  Do you support her decision?  Do you disagree with what she had done?  Would you consider ending your life on your own terms if you were in her situation?  Why or why not?  Do more states need to pass right-to-life legislation for Americans who desire to do this?  Which is more important:  quantity of life or quality of life?  If you are a person with a disability, could you take such a heart wrenching and difficult stance like Brittany?  Share your thoughts with me about this issue.

(Featured headlining images:  Courtesy of KTLA/Brittany Maynard & Prana Yoga College.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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