October 16, 2014

On Brittany Maynard’s Story: Why I Think that Death with Dignity Might Be a Scary Line to Draw

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As far as viral social media trends go, Brittany Maynard’s story is one that makes you sort of appreciate your daily dose of Buzzfeed; looking at cat memes and Jennifer Lawrence GIFs is a lot easier to digest than looking at a newly married 29-year-old who is about to die.

But unfortunately, life isn’t only cat memes and Hunger Games. Life is also young people with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive type of brain tumor, being told that they have six months left to live. It’s mothers trying to deal with the fact that their children have decided to end their lives on their own terms, not on their diseases’. And it’s debates on how society should handle these situations.

If you don’t know about Brittany Maynard, she is the most recent face of the “Death with Dignity" laws present in five US states (Montana, New Mexico, Vermont, Washington, and Oregon) that allow doctors to assist terminally ill patients end their lives. As a terminally ill patient herself, Brittany recently moved to Oregon so that she can end her life on November 1st and not give her brain tumor a chance to do it for her.

Although I love giving my opinion on things, there are some topics I don’t think I deserve to speak on. Whether or not to prematurely end your own life, thankfully, is one of them; I have no idea what it is like to be told you will be dead within a year and so I have no idea how I would handle that. I don’t think anyone deserves to tell someone in that unimaginable situation what he or she should personally do.

But, as is her intention, Brittany’s situation does bring up the question on how we should handle this as a society. Should laws like the Death with Dignity laws be expanded to all 50 states? Should we allow doctors to help people die? And if so, under what circumstances?

Under the Death with Dignity laws as they currently exist, the circumstances are generally:
The patient has to be an adult, terminally ill and diagnosed with fewer than six months to live. The patient then submits two verbal requests, 15 days apart, indicating that it is not a snap decision. Two physicians then evaluate the patient to ensure the person is mentally competent to make their own medical care decisions. If approved, the patient submits a written request signed by witnesses. If not, they are sent for psychological evaluation. (Source)
At first, that seems reasonable; these people are most likely never going to get better and for many, the months they are giving up by ending their lives early will most likely be months of suffering anyway.

But the problem with drawing a line between when we condone ending your life and when it is illegal is the line itself. Because lines have a way of moving and becoming fuzzy and are sometimes difficult to enforce. And when that line symbolizes our tolerance as a society of people deciding to end lives prematurely, fuzziness can lead to a very slippery slope.

I think most people would agree that the line should be drawn so that Brittany should be allowed to end her life; allowing her to avoid likely months of suffering is probably the compassionate thing to do. But what happens in situations where people don’t necessarily agree on the line?

Take, for example, the Netherlands: in 2001, the country legalized euthanasia. And right now, it’s become a big problem. According to thedailybeast.com:
Ten years passed, and practices evolved. In early 2012 a group called the Life-Ending Clinic went into operation for people whose personal physicians refused to terminate their lives or assist their suicides. The clinic has since tested the boundaries of “unbearable suffering.” Among those it has helped to die: people with chronic depression and those who have signed their own euthanasia declaration in the early stages of dementia. 
According to breitbart.com, "deaths from euthanasia have risen by a total of 151 percent in a period of just seven years, with most cases involving cancer sufferers. However, there were also 97 people who were killed by their doctors because they had dementia."

I don’t know if this is where the Dutch intended their line to be drawn, but it seems like a scary direction to be going in.

Because what if it’s take a few steps further, and people want to die because they’re old? It seems like a silly thing to think but on the other hand, I’ve known old people who could probably make a good argument that allowing them to die instead of existing in an assisted living hospital bed would be the ultimate form of compassion.

Our line probably would never get that far... But maybe it would. Because the fact that the line is drawn at all means that at least in some cases, we think it’s okay for someone (or a group of people) to have the power to allow a life to end prematurely. And, as is being proven in the Netherlands, a line like that can be pushed.

I don’t know if there is a good answer. Someone I respect a lot suggested that instead of allowing doctors to prescribe medicine specifically to kill, allowing doctors to prescribe enough medicine to completely relieve a patient of physical pain regardless of if that amount kills him. It's an interesting alternative, but I still don't know if it's the "right" one.

But I do know that, even though I cried watching Brittany’s mom on video, I am still not convinced that I am on board with the Death with Dignity laws. I would (and could) never disagree Brittany is making the “right” decision in her circumstance. But I don’t know if I agree that we should make it a standard in our society. I don’t know how we should handle it, but I’m not convinced that the Death with Dignity laws are it.

Because this line is a serious one, and the risks of fuzziness are a lot to gamble.

It's a sensitive subject but if you have an opinion, I'd love to hear it.