The social media firestorm surrounding the argument for assisted suicide was rekindled these last few weeks with the story of Brittany Maynard, a terminal brain cancer patient who, through the help of Oregon’s laws, passed away surrounded by her friends and family this past Saturday. Once again, the debate surrounding ‘death rights’ has been stoked and people around the country are weighing in. Now, for the young woman who ended her life this past weekend, the choice was simple: rather than take her chances with treatment, she decided that quality of life was much more important.
For me, this question is a much more difficult one. My father, who passed away in 2010, died of terminal cancer after an epic battle that lasted roughly three years. In that time, he fought back stage 4 stomach cancer, traveled the world and provided closure to his family and friends. When his doctors told him he had less than 6 months to live, he didn’t accept that as some eventuality, he saw that as a challenge to fight harder. Considering he outlived that diagnosis by years, I would say that his fight was successful.
The story of my father shows me that we aren’t at a place yet, medically, that would allow us to justify the assisted suicide of terminally ill patients. Yes, I see the argument and understand the perspective of advocates that say that sometimes, there just aren’t any options; or the idea that quality of life is what becomes important as days become numbered. That being said, had my own father accepted what doctors had said when he was first diagnosed, things for my family would have been very different in his final year. Brittney was 29. She was diagnosed in January and the doctors told her that she had six months to live after one surgery.
Should she have fought harder? Sought alternative treatment? Pushed herself to her physical, spiritual and mental limit fighting this illness? I would argue yes. I would say that the fact that assisted suicide was presented as an option to her gave her a much easier ticket to punch and basically made her give up before she played her final hand. Can I say with any certainty that her life would have been extended or that she would have been better for it? No, I can’t and I am not so arrogant that I refuse to acknowledge that each person has a unique perspective on the world. But should we be giving this option to people after we tell the that they will most likely die? I don’t think so.
Search the internet and you will find a plethora of survivor stories. Doctors telling patients they have X months to live and patients shattering those expectations by fighting back cancer into remission. Should all those survivors have been given the option to give up?
I argue today that we should not allow assisted suicide. If anything, we should condemn it. We should push terminal patients to fight harder. Be positive. Push themselves to the limit so to speak when it comes to fighting for their lives. Maybe this is the legacy my father left me in showing me how hard he fought to cling to what little life he had left. Whatever it is, anything that makes us forget that there can be light at the end of the tunnel and that tunnel doesn’t have to start six feet underground is counterproductive.
To close, what I won’t do is talk about the morality of this decision. Morality is subjective and what is an ethical choice by one is easily condemned by another. What I will do is propose this question: Would it have hurt Brittney, her family and friends if she didn’t have the choice to end her life “on her own terms” or would it have made her and her bonds to her friends and family stronger? Would they have been better for the experience? I know my father’s own journey changed me in more ways that I can count and I can honestly say that the time we spent after his diagnosis and seeing his resolve first hand, changed me for the better.