Keenan: Who are we to judge Brittany Maynard?

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News
  • Many say Maynard's age%2C 29%2C prompted a huge response from young people on social media.
  • Religious zealots accused her of playing God.
  • Concern the vulnerable could be misguided into finding justification for assisted suicide

In the span of one year, Brittany Maynard went from being a newlywed actively trying for a family to being a terminal brain cancer patient actively planning to end her life.

And no one, not even her detractors, could not have been moved by the video of the 29-year-old explaining why she has chosen to take a lethal dose of a sedative on the first of November.

"I can't even tell you the amount of relief that it provides me to know that I don't have to die the way it's been described to me, that my brain tumor would take me on its own," Maynard said in a video campaign for Compassion & Choices, a group that seeks to expand death-with-dignity laws.

Maynard and her husband recently moved from California to Portland, Oregon, one of five states where it is legal for a doctor to prescribe a life-ending drug to a terminally ill patient of sound mind who makes the request. And while Oregon has allowed for assisted suicide since 1997, Maynard's case has revived the national debate over medical aid in dying because, many say, her age prompted a huge response from young people on social media.

While more than 750 people in Oregon used the law to die as of Dec. 31, 2013, the median age of the deceased is 71. Only six were younger than 34.

Indeed, #BrittanyMaynard has gone viral and she is on the cover of the Oct. 27 issue of People magazine. But for all the praise for her candor and bravery, there is dissension, too.

Medical ethicists maintain rather than take her own life, she should avail herself of palliative measures they say could alleviate her pain and suffering while she is dying. Religious zealots accused her of playing God. Joni Eareckson Tada, who is a quadriplegic and a breast cancer survivor, addressed Maynard, pleading: "Please, Brittany … I don't want her to wake up on the other side of her tombstone only to face a dark, grim existence without life and joy; that is, without God."

Groups like Not Dead Yet and Second Thoughts expressed concern that the vulnerable — those who are depressed or disabled — could be misguided into finding justification for assisted suicide and thereby make an irrevocable mistake.

There's concern, too, about coercion, that lives would be ended without people's consent, through mistakes, loopholes or elder abuse. More than 10 years ago, I did a story on a fractured family in Traverse City that had gone to court to settle a dispute over the care of an elderly grandfather with Alzheimer's. One side wanted to prevent the other side from moving to Oregon.

All of which highlights the need for us to come up with better safeguards, more awareness, less fear and certainly more respect for the rights of the vulnerable and the terminally ill.

But, as Maynard said to a CBS News reporter this week: How can anyone judge her individual decision? "I think until anyone has walked a mile in my shoes and knows what they're facing and has felt the, like, just bone-splitting headaches that I get sometimes, or the seizures, or the inability to speak, or the moments where I'm looking at my husband's face and I can't think of his name.

"Cancer is ending my life. I'm choosing to end it a little sooner and in a lot less pain and suffering."