My Friend Killed Herself in an Assisted Suicide, I Hope Brittany Maynard Will Reconsider

National   |   Wesley J. Smith   |   Oct 17, 2014   |   1:03PM   |   Washington, DC

I wrote my first anti-euthanasia article for Newsweek. Here is a small piece of, “The Whispers of Strangers,” which lamanted my friend Frances’ suicide under the influence of Hemlock Society (now Compassion and Choices) how-to literature:

Frances once told me that through her death she would be advancing a cause. It is a cause I now deeply despise. Not only did it take Frances, but it rejects all that I hold sacred and true: that the preservation of human life is our highest moral ideal; that a principal purpose of government is as a protector of life; that those who fight to stay alive in the face of terminal disease are powerful uplifters of the human experience.

brittanymaynard6As originally written, the last phrase read, “that those who fight to stay alive in the face of terminal disease–like Michael Landon–are powerful uplifters of the human experience.”

Some readers might not remember Landon. He was a very popular television actor, who died young of pancreatic cancer in 1991. I have been thinking of him again lately amidst the media frenzy over the planned suicide of cancer patient Brittany Maynard.

So, I compared the media’s treatment of the two in my current First Things article:

Landon’s grit and determination inspired the nation. When he died a few months later, praise for his unshrinking courage led the obituaries. “Goodbye Little Joe,” in People, exemplified the media’s approach:

As word of his condition spread, thousands of letters of encouragement and sympathy arrived daily. Scores of friends visited the house and stood vigil at the gates of the ranch. “I have X amount of energy,” said Landon, “and what I have, I want to spend with my family.” Landon’s youngest children, Sean, 4, and Jennifer, 7, were “emotionally distraught,” says longtime friend and business partner Kent McCray, “but Michael passed his strength along to them.”

According to colleague John Warren, Landon also spent time videotaping his last wishes to family and friends. If his friends and family had solace, it was in Landon’s extraordinary calm. Says Flynn of his old friend’s last hours: “It was like going off a diving board. He knew it was coming, and he was brave to the last.

Attitudes have changed about disease and death since then—and, in my view, not for the better. Indeed, today, many might secretly consider Landon a chump for choosing to struggle until his natural death.

I then note how the striking similarity in the media’s take on Maynard’s planned suicide to the praise it once heaped on Landon for “fighting against the dying of the light.”

More, it is striking how the reporting about Maynard’s decision to die resembles the reporting about Landon’s courage twenty-three years ago. For example, People, which once applauded Landon for fighting to the end, now has the mirror-opposite take about Maynard. It even made her a cover story:

For the past 29 years, Brittany Maynard has lived a fearless life—running half marathons, traveling through Southeast Asia for a year and even climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. So, it’s no surprise she is facing her death the same way. On Monday, Maynard will launch an online video campaign with the nonprofit Compassion and Choices, an end-of-life choice advocacy organization, to fight for expanding Death with Dignity laws nationwide.

Suicide has made Maynard an international celebrity. Partly, that’s because she is the perfect icon: young, pretty, newly wed, tragically dying, and transgressive for wanting to kill herself rather than face the rigors of late-stage brain cancer.

And here’s a telling truth about our dissipating times:

But what if Maynard followed Landon’s path instead? She’d still be young, pretty, newly wed, and tragically dying—but there would be no cover stories in People or applause from Rosie O’Donnell. In fact, we would never have heard of her.

I conclude:

If assisted suicide is now considered “courageous” and equates with “death with dignity,” doesn’t that imply that people like Landon who choose to “fight against the dying of the light” are undignified and perhaps less courageous? Maynard isn’t nihilistic. She is just scared.

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Those using her tragedy for their own purposes—policy advocacy, ratings, Internet hits, etc.—can’t say the same. The words of Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne keep ricocheting around my brain: “A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death. A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.”

Worse, as I wrote here at HE, if Maynard dies on 11/1 as apparently planned, the media will have forgotten who she is on 11/3, as they stampede off to the next emotive story. Sickening. Note: Wesley J. Smith, J.D., is a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture and a bioethics attorney who blogs at Human Exeptionalism.