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Can Death Be a Compassionate Choice?

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.

Alex S. Pak
A young professional with a passion for rhetoric. He was born and raised in Southern California where he attended high school and college. Alex focused his studies on the humanities and is a keen observer of the human condition. In is spare time, enjoys reading, watching movies, and partying like a rock star.

2 thoughts on “Can Death Be a Compassionate Choice?

  1. Let me share with you a story: my grandmother, whom we all loved (a family of 20+ people, and this being just our immediate relatives), fell terminally ill some years ago. She had dementia. I have SEEN first hand what a disease of the brain does to someone. We lost here piece by piece, bit by bit, until she wasn’t “grandma” anymore, just a husk on a bed, whom we had to take care of until she finally passed in great suffering.

    I don’t know how I could put in words how it felt to watch her die like that. Now my last memory of her will be forever that of a corpse kept alive by apparatus in a hospital. If she would’ve had the option to Die With Dignity, she would have taken it. The only thing that stopped her from taking her own life while she could was that she was with someone 24/7, whether the nurse or one of the family). But believe me… this was terrible for her and for us.

    In the end, I feel it’s the sick’s person choice how they want to go and be remembered. And the only thing the rest of us can do is be supportive in that decision. Aside from any metaphysical or religious doctrines or concepts, it’s their life, their destiny. (Anyone using the religious argument should know not to push their faith on someone else unless the dying has expressed that wish themselves).

    You raise valid points – but you cannot, and should not, assume that just because some people fought back and got those extra months or years to live, ALL people will a- wish to do that, and b- be able to.

    Sorry for my English.

    1. Thank you for your input. I would tend to agree with all your points and having gone through this two times, not just with my father but also with my grandfather. In both cases, I would say that the lessons they imparted to me before they left me, I wouldn’t trade for the world. I was there when both of them drew their last breath and I’m happy to have been a part of that cycle. When we promote assisted suicide, it becomes a crutch to excuse ourselves from a natural part of life.

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