On November 1, twenty-nine-year-old Brittany Maynard, suffering from terminal brain cancer, took her own life under Oregon’s assisted suicide law. California, Maynard’s home state, doesn’t allow doctor-assisted suicide. So she moved to Oregon, where she could legally die on her own terms.
Currently, assisted suicide is unequivocally legal in only three states—Oregon, Washington, and Vermont—where it is allowed in cases of terminal illness in which doctors estimate that the person in question will die of his illness within six months. In Montana and New Mexico, although courts have ruled in favor of physicians assisting in the suicide of terminally ill patients, the legal situation appears unsettled. But even in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, the laws do not fully recognize and protect an individual’s right to take his own life or to contract with a medical professional for assistance in this regard.
Consider the plight of New Jersey resident Christina Symanski a few years ago. As Bob Braun of New Jersey’s Star-Ledger recounts, Symanski was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident in 2005. After years of agonizing physical and emotional struggle, and facing hopeless decades in a state she considered “intolerable,” Symanski chose to end her own life. As Braun notes, Symanski searched for but could not find a legal way to get assistance from a medical professional—not even in Oregon. So, in 2012, she literally starved herself to death through “a slow and torturous . . . agony that lasted two months.” In a widely viewed final statement on her blog—written before her death but published afterward—Symanski explained how and why she came to her decision. Her post, titled “Quality vs. Quantity,” closed as follows:
I feel justified in saying I’ve suffered enough. I feel it’s horribly unfair, that I’m forced to live, the way paralysis has forced on ME. I’m not talking about “quadriplegics,” I’m talking about Christina Symanski. . . . I can’t speak for anyone but myself, in terms of quality of life. . . . So then I’m left with the question, “is it really worth living?” Not for everyone else’s reasons, or for anyone else, but ME. . . . I don’t view THIS as a quality life.
Life for a human being is not merely about breathing or having a pulse. A human life is about pursuing the goals and values that, according to one’s own judgment, will make one’s life enjoyable and worth living. In dire circumstances in which a person is unable to live the kind of life that he or she regards as worth living—and only the individual can make such a determination—it may be the case that remaining alive is a fate worse than death. Life is not merely about quantity; it is also, and more importantly, about quality.
Both Brittany Maynard and Christina Symanski bravely chose to decide for themselves the terms on which they would live and die—and both women bravely chose to make their decisions and struggles public in order to highlight the inhumanity of laws forbidding assisted suicide.
In a country founded on the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, most states nevertheless forbid a person to exercise these rights when the pursuit of happiness becomes impossible. This means a person in personal agony with no hope for a future of happiness legally must remain alive and suffer. That is a moral disgrace. As Maynard wrote in a widely publicized CNN.com op-ed: “I would not tell anyone else that he or she should choose death with dignity. My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice?”