The Brittany Maynard Story: True Compassion?

The Brittany Maynard Story: True Compassion?
By William Cooney


This article was first published in the inaugural issue of CT COR, the Newsletter of the Connecticut Coalition of Reason, in April of 2015.

The death last year of Brittany Maynard has focused attention on the question of whether anyone has the right to hasten his or her own demise when confronting terminal illness. Facing inoperable brain cancer and a lingering, painful death, Brittany decided she would end her own life when the time “seemed right.” She moved to Oregon, one of five states that allow physician-assisted death with dignity, and on November 1, 2014, ingested a pharmaceutical cocktail prescribed by her doctor that mercifully ended her suffering and her life.

What precisely is at the core of this burgeoning debate? Individual liberty? The sanctity of life? Deference to a supreme moral arbiter? Or answering the call to mitigate human suffering? In our especially diverse culture, it would seem “all of the above.” A spokesperson for the Vatican said Ms. Maynard’s physician-assisted death was an “absurdity” and was “without dignity.” Not only do such remarks serve to perpetuate the convenient construction of highly dysfunctional moral absolutes, they also come from an institution that, through its own heinous deeds, has forfeited the right to dare interpret for others the meaning of dignity. This kind of simplistic reasoning dismisses the reality that life itself is an exercise in moral nuance, moderation, exceptions, and context, where our actions are judged by their consequences. If only we lived in a world where we didn’t have to do the hard work of thinking for ourselves and administering our own evolving morality, life would be oh so much easier.

Moral absolutes are enticingly comforting. They relieve us of the burden to sort out and confront the more complex challenges of day-to-day living. And the religious world view is uniquely suited to this task of ultimate self deception. The “all life is sacred” approach to conundrums such as those faced by Brittany Maynard and others undermines a simple truth, one that tells us quality of life is the greater consideration. Why should anyone, including the Catholic Church, insist that terminally ill people cling to prolonged misery in the face of certain near-term death? Is it as simple as fearing the consequences of disobedience to some omnipotent god creature? Or is it that we fear death itself so much we will go to any length to challenge its ultimate inevitability?

On the practical side, the costs of life-extending care are formidable in the extreme. We may, in fact, be doing more harm than good by denying the resources necessary to help those who actually stand a much better chance at improving both the quality and duration of their lives. Invoking extraordinary life-saving measures for no other reason than to placate our flawed moral sensibilities is not a solution; it is a cop-out. It is also a direct cause of much unnecessary pain and suffering. What is the point of resuscitating someone only to see them live to endure a mere month or two more of unspeakable discomfort at exorbitant expense? We rationalists, atheists, and humanists emphatically do not see the point.

For now only Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, and Montana allow mentally competent, adult, terminally ill patients to ask for a prescription from their doctor to hasten death. It is therefore important that those of us who think death with dignity is an idea whose time has come contact our representatives here in Connecticut and let them know we support legislation that would give patients the right to die when faced with a prolonged and painful death experience. And despite what many religious people think, we should walk and talk with confidence in our own moral rectitude whenever we find ourselves defending this position.

In the end, how we lived our lives, and how our lives affected those whom we touched, are much more important than the manner, or timing, of our more or less insignificant deaths.