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The National Catholic Bioethics Center
Physician-Assisted Suicide and the Death of Brittany Maynard
November 2014
© 2020 by The National Catholic Bioethics Center

Physician-Assisted Suicide and the Death of Brittany Maynard

November 5, 2014

Brittany Maynard, who was told by doctors that she had only six months to live after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, ended her life last week on November 1, a date she had selected ahead of time. The 29-year-old took a fatal dose of barbiturates, prescribed by her doctor, at her home in Portland, Oregon, surrounded by her husband and other members of her family.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center expresses its sadness and regret over the untimely close of the life of such a vigorous young woman. Her decision to end her life by self-inflicted means reminds us of the tragic reality of suicide and the injustice of laws encouraging physician-assisted suicide. Such laws facilitate the making of unreasonable decisions among those feeling weak and vulnerable as they face a serious disease or old age. Such laws encourage us to abandon the vulnerable to a hastened death, rather than building up the needed human solidarity and mutual support critical to journeying through such important personal moments of crisis. Such laws undermine the noble profession of medicine, redirecting health care workers away from their core mission of healing and toward the works of death and killing.

Suicide has always been recognized as a tragedy, and it is invariably harmful and hurtful on many levels. Brittany argued that she would not really be committing suicide if she chose to take her own life: “They try to mix it up with suicide and that's really unfair, because there's not a single part of me that wants to die,” she told People magazine. “But I am dying.” Clearly her words, that “there’s not a single part of me that wants to die,” indicate that this is a tragedy, enabled by a growing cultural phenomenon that asserts that the only way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate the sufferer. This is a palliative care failure, and Brittany deserved better from the medical community and from society itself.

No one is obligated to use heroic or extraordinary means to stay alive, but one should use ordinary and reasonable measures to treat disease and sickness and to prepare for natural death. However, the honorable profession of medicine never should be used to help a person to directly take his own life or to treat the objective good of life as if it were an evil to be directly extinguished.  This clearly is a disordered and eminently unethical act opposed to the meaning of medicine.

What Brittany chose to do was motivated by fear. She feared suffering. She feared pain. She feared losing control. In a culture that labels assisted suicide as a compassionate choice, she was made to feel that by attacking her own life, she was gaining control over her life, but this was entirely false.

When society fosters such fears so that we believe our best option is to kill ourselves, this is not true compassion. It is a false compassion that does not accompany the sufferer, but relegates him or her to a life without hope. It is, in fact, a form of abandonment by the medical community. It is not a “death with dignity” but the frightening indignity of verbal engineering pretending that violence is not really violence. Her death represents a tragedy that tears at our shared humanity, and a failure on the part of all of us in allowing unjust laws like the one in Oregon through which such violent and hurtful actions are granted legal status and the veneer of social acceptability.

We remember Brittany and we grieve with her family.


The Ethicists of The National Catholic Bioethics Center