Death with Dignity

by Tara Cahanap

Imagine waking up tomorrow and learning that in one week you will no longer be able to speak. In one month, you will go blind. In two months, you will lose all motor function, and you will no longer be able to form new memories.

Your name is Brittany Maynard, if you are willing to wear her shoes for a while. Just over a year ago you were diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressively growing and often inoperable brain tumor.

You spend many months researching the disease, investigating your treatment options, and speaking to family and friends of other patients with the same diagnosis. After much deliberation, you decide to uproot your life in San Francisco, California and move to Portland, Oregon for one reason: Oregon is one of five states that recognizes the “death with dignity” law—a law that allows terminally ill patients to receive a prescription that will hasten death under certain safeguards.

After you qualify as a candidate, you will receive a prescription pill which, when taken, will end your life “peacefully and painlessly” as you describe in a video interview for the end-of-life advocacy group Compassion and Choices.

When asked about your decision in an interview with People magazine, you will say,  “My (cancer) is going to kill me, and it's a terrible, terrible way to die. So to be able to die with my family with me, to have control of my own mind, which I would stand to lose—to go with dignity is less terrifying."

In 1997, Oregon became the first state to enact legislation allowing patients to opt for voluntary self-administration of lethal medications as outlined by the Oregon Health Authority on the state government website. This option is offered to terminally ill, mentally competent patients who have six months or less to live. Despite being legally recognized in five states for nearly seventeen years, voluntary euthanasia (VE) and Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS) have come under great controversy in recent years.  However, your recent decision to end your own life reignited a controversial ethical debate. The nation is shocked that at only 29 years old when most people are just starting their lives, you are choosing to end yours.

A recent debate between you and one of your most vocal opponents, Dr. Ira Byock, one of the top palliative care physicians in the country, commented that your decision to die is “not a personal act, [but a] social act.” Byock fears that the pressure to live up to public legacy may coerce or influence the decision. Others simply call you suicidal and fail to see how a brain tumor gives you the right to end your own life while depression does not.

Peter Macahamer, University of Pittsburgh Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, recognizes the moral issues that are associated with euthanasia. “We feel worse about young people dying than we do about people who’ve reached the end of their life. It seems more tragic. And it is,” Machamer commented. “But what I try to tell my students in my class is that it’s gonna be something that you may have to face one day in the not too distant future. Not you personally, but maybe your parents or your grandparents. You start to think about what things you value about your life and what makes it more reasonable to vote to end it.”

In light of recent events, Machamer emphasizes that “the best thing about euthanasia is that it’s causing people to think about these things… about what really is important in your life.”  

In the last days before you end your life, you plan to travel with friends and family to Juno, Alaska and Yellowstone National Park. You plan to see the Grand Canyon and eat a tub of ice cream in one sitting. You will start and manage The Brittany Maynard Fund and help expand the death with dignity option to all. You will create a website and blog about your experiences. You will write, “In our time on earth, all that counts are the people you love and the people who love you. Appreciate them. Don't miss a moment.”

You will burn through your bucket list at an alarming speed. You will not wake up every day and look at the pill that will end your life. You will only be comforted by the fact that you can choose to die peacefully and not in the way that dying from a brain tumor has been described to you. And when you finally need the pill, you will die in the bed you share with your husband, with your mother beside you and your favorite music in the background.