She dazzlingly adorned an October cover of People magazine and, on some days, the headlines on CNN. She was photogenic; she wrote and spoke with a strong and independent voice. She was compelling. She was Brittany Maynard, the newest (and arguably the first deliberate) poster girl for assisted suicide. While many supporters and practitioners of assisted suicide (or its approximate equivalent, euthanasia) shy away from the spotlight, she openly embraced one of the last taboos in America, not only for herself but as an advocate for others. Like the star of a reality television show, she gained national publicity by inviting people deep into her personal life. By building up this intricate aesthetic and voyeuristic fascination around her own death, Maynard glorified and glamorized suicide – seeking to make it okay, not only to talk about, but to commit. All the while, the media has feigned discomfort while painting her message in a positive light.
How Maynard first came to this place and the circumstances underlying her fame are, of course, not enviable. She was the 29-year-old victim of a very aggressive form of terminal brain cancer, diagnosed shortly after her wedding. She suffered pain and seizures unimaginable to all but those who go through the same. In a way, who could blame her? Who would not want to breathe their last breaths of life peacefully, and be spared unending days of debilitation and pain beyond belief? This ominous prospect is enough to at least shake the most stalwart lovers-of-life.
This, then, is where others come in. Family, friends, clergy, community – anyone of consequence in the life of someone contemplating suicide or facing terminal illness – have a responsibility to show authentic love to that person, to exercise that love and so make manifest and felt the value of their life, and to thereby give witness and encouragement to others. Indeed, we as humans can be at our best when we care for those who have it worst.
Typically, such interactions are a very private affair. In Maynard’s case, however, the media has been central to the drama, and because of this, it had a special responsibility, one that is has failed to carry out. The media has enabled an agenda that says it is okay for humans to take lives that are unwanted or burdened by severe suffering or other difficulties. While putatively limited to the case of an adult woman who lucidly chose her mortal fate, the media’s tone is facilitating an increased acceptance of assisted suicide and, ultimately, euthanasia. It is the same tone that increasingly populates conversations about infanticide and that has hypnotized swaths of Europe, where parents can now successfully fight to have their disabled children killed and a system fraught with error and abuse takes the lives of the infirm.
This is emblematic of the “culture of death” that Pope John Paul II warned about and the broader “throw-away culture” that his successor, Pope Francis, laments. Rather than care for the vulnerable, which one might otherwise think is an elementary task of a purportedly enlightened society, this culture disposes of them. Some aspects of the culture of death have been embraced in American policy for years. Assisted suicide, however, is still only legal (in some form) in five states. Those who resist its spread can take heart. At the same time, however, they would do well to recognize that many in the media will be pressing for its acceptance in the years to come.
Most Americans today understand that the taking of one’s own life is one of the saddest occurrences in human experience. We can sense this in the outcry every time a case of cyberbullying tragically ends in a high-profile suicide. We feel compassion for the victim and rail at the surrounding injustices that led to that final place, where death seemed like the only way. From this, we have reason to hope that it is not inevitable that the national culture will traverse into the abyss of widely-accepted assisted suicide and euthanasia, where a life is valuable only as long as it is deemed wanted or useful.
Yet, we must remain actively aware of subtle attempts to undo this deep-seated aversion to the self-inflicted ending of lives which will initially arise in other, more sympathetic, contexts. The case of Brittany Maynard is one such situation. In some circles, the tragedy of the late Robin Williams is another. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted “Genie, you’re free” after Williams’ death, it was undeniably poetic and touching. Yet it was also rightly criticized for sending a dangerous message that suicide can be a romantic step into total liberation.
To be sure, death has long been a fertile topic for poets, and there is something to be said for a person who is at peace with letting go of this life in hope of a better one to come. The active and willful intervention in seeking death that Maynard advocated, however, is not the same as passively letting go, nor is it the equivalent of relinquishing extraordinary and unnatural means of keeping a person alive. One way cherishes the life we have while we have it and honors the value in each person. The other seizes, diminishes, and ultimately destroys that life. There is no glamor in that. Maynard may or may not have fully appreciated the latter path; but, again, the responsibility for what her message accomplishes rests as much, if not more, upon the media.
In the end, it is right for us to hope that Brittany Maynard found peace. Beyond that, however, we perhaps ought to hope that those surrounding her helped her to catch a glimpse of authentic love, and of her true value.
Robert Vega works as a staffer on Capitol Hill and serves as the coordinator of Young Adult ministry at a parish in Washington, DC. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 2011.