The Trumped Up Case Against Brittany Maynard


A national nerve was once again touched last month when a still vibrant (on the outside) 29-year-old announced she’d chosen a physician-assisted death rather than seek further treatment for an inoperable brain cancer. Subsequently – and per the now familiar drill on the issue – both supporters and opponents of the practice seized upon this opportunity to put their arguments before an increasingly ambivalent public; and now that Brittany Maynard has made good on her decision to end her life rather than endure further suffering (she died on November 1) the discourse has only become more diffused as sympathetic followers of Maynard’s narrative lobby for personal autonomy over ensconced ethical absolutes.

But there can be no moral malaise among those predisposed to condemn assisted suicide. For those most ardently opposed to the death-with-dignity movement, Maynard’s was an act of ignorance and arrogance – an ethical slippery slope at best; an outright sin at its worst. And as if the rift between ethical worldviews were not cavernous enough, there is the similar yet different journey of Lauren Hill – a tale that when superficially read and juxtaposed with Maynard’s, has resulted in a trumped up standoff between moral proxies.

Like Maynard’s, Hill’s story is a study in joy and tragedy. A first-year Division III women’s basketball player, she gained national attention in early November as she realized in bittersweet fashion her dream to play at the collegiate level. Through a multitude of accommodations, Hill scored both the first and last two points as her team, Mount St. Joseph University, notched a win over Hiram College. It was as one fan in the arena put it, a one-word message: live.

Ironically, word of Hill’s upcoming crowning day came as Brittany Maynard was making an online video explaining her illness and plan to end her life. The irony was not lost on the media masses, evoking the inevitable, judgmental knee-jerk rants from conservative extremists such as Pat Robertson’s judgmental knee-jerk rants, and spawning simplistic blog bylines: “Brittany Maynard Versus Lauren Hill: One is Campaigning for Life, the Other for Death” and “Dying to Live, and Living to Die: Brittany Maynard and Lauren Hill.”

Yet this anecdotally-driven, clearly demarcated moral universe is not the one in which more and more Americans live. To the contrary we are, many of us, at sea when it comes to life and death.

In her recent review of a 2013 report done by the Pew Research Center, Religion News Service correspondent Cathy Lynn Grossman notes that while there is an uptick in the percentage of Americans who subscribe to a “never say die” approach to treating terminally-ill patients (from 15% in 1990 to 31% in 2013) the majority still believe there are instances when a patient should be free to end his or her life.

Grossman underscores the nation’s internal wrestling over life and death with this summary of the report:

“Most (62%) see [suicide] as a right if someone is in great pain with no hope of improvement; 56% say so if someone has an incurable disease; 38% say so if “living has become a burden” for the patient; and 32% would see suicide as a right if living on is an “extremely heavy burden on his or her family.””

With a solid empirical base and narrow 2.9-point margin of error, the Pew findings suggest that while we increasingly speak in defense of desperate and intrusive responses to dying, there is also a growing trend toward quality, not quantity of life.

In short, we’re all over the place on this one. And Brittany Maynard should not be made to pay for our own troubled souls. Maynard should go down not as the evil half of an infantile debate on something so important – something so holy – as when to live and when to die. Rather that she be remembered as one among many expressions of who we are as a people, caught in a conflicted moment in time, doing our stumble down best to make sense of the hard truth that we are all just passing through.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2014

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