real life

Brittany Maynard's right to die isn't about choosing death, it's about controlling her life.

Brittany and her husband Dan.

Trigger warning: This post deals with the themes of assisted death and suicide. If it brings up any issues for you, contact Lifeline:  131 114.


Brittany Maynard might die tomorrow. Or she might not.

But regardless of whether her much publicised plan to die on 1 November 2014 eventuates, 29-year-old Maynard has won a major battle for the rights of terminally ill people to end their lives with dignity. She will have also made a personal choice, which should be respected and empathised with.

Brittany Maynard is living with terminal brain cancer; she is not expected to live beyond 2014. She has a loving husband, a family who adore her and countless reasons to want to stay alive. She and her family relocated from California to Oregon earlier this year because Oregon is one of only five US states whose laws would allow Maynard to commit suicide with the assistance of a doctor.

Brittany and Dan on their wedding day.

An advocate for national laws to allow physician assisted suicide, Maynard has been outspoken about her right to die on her own terms and at a time of her own choosing.

The effects of Maynard’s disease would likely see her quality of life severely limited in the final weeks of her life and even with medical assistance, her pain levels would be severe.

This physical distress would only be compounded by the devastating psychological effects of being less than 30-years-old and knowing your life could be over at any minute. Given her circumstance, Maynard, understandably, wanted ownership of her own fate. She did not to walk through the years – or what’s left of those years – that should be her shiniest, wondering when she’s going to succumb to the rapid deterioration of her own brain.

Maynard has been prescribed medicine under Oregon’s ‘Dying with Dignity’ laws that will allow her to take her own life in an immediate and painless way. Through her YouTube video, which has been viewed a massive 8.8 million times to day, Maynard shared her decision to die with the world and elected 1 November 2014 as the date she would take the fatal medicine; her family and physician friend by her side.

In sharing her decision to die so publicly and so eloquently arguing the case for physician assisted suicide to be more broadly available, Maynard has became somewhat of a poster girl for the dying with aid movement. She is young and vibrant, her situation is genuinely heart-breaking and her strength of character and sense of self are seemingly immovable.

But today Maynard released another video, in which she suggested that she may not proceed with her suicide tomorrow as planned. She said:

“If November 2nd comes along and I’ve passed, I hope my family is still proud of me and the choices I made. And if November 2nd comes along and I’m still alive, I know that we’ll just still be moving forward as a family out of love for each other and that that decision will come later.”

“I still feel good enough and I still have enough joy and I still laugh and smile with my family and friends enough that it doesn’t seem like the right time right now, but it will come because I feel myself getting sicker, it’s happening each week.”

No doubt, Maynard’s decision not to possibly proceed with her suicide on the pre-announced date will attract a whole lot of publicity she doesn’t want.

Brittany and Dan.

Those who oppose physician-assisted suicide are likely to pounce on this change of heart, using it as ‘evidence’ that nobody can ever be truly sure that they want to die. It is a common argument of those who oppose the right to die, to give the example of individuals who have attempted suicide, survived and ultimately found happiness. Proof, they argue, that a change of mind is always possible and you never know what health, miracle or medical advancement the next day will bring.


In other words? Groups that are against assisted suicide will probably try and turn Brittany Maynard into an example for a cause she does not believe in.

But to do so will not only devalue Maynard’s life and the work she has committed herself to since January this year – it will ultimately be in vain. Because Maynard’s decision not to die tomorrow, is just as powerful an argument for assisted suicide as her decision to die would be.

Because physician-assisted suicide is not about death. It is about control.

When Brittany Maynard moved to Oregon and was given a prescription for life-ending drugs, she didn’t win the right to die. She won the right to choose how her inevitable death will occur, if she wishes. She won the right to save herself and her family from the torturous pain of her debilitating terminal illness, on her own terms.

Brittany and her mum, Debbie, at the Grand Canyon.

Maynard told CNN last year that her deepest and worst fear was the “autonomy taken away from me by my disease because of the nature of my cancer”. With that quote she revealed the incredible psychological healing power for terminally ill patients of having access to a drug they know can end their suffering: autonomy and control.

One of biggest psychological challenges for a person with a terminal illness is the emotional burden of their own decline, whether it be the loss of brain function, the ability to communicate or to live independently. These fears can decreases quality of life beyond what counselling can possibly address. What access to physician assisted suicide provides is a safety net of control and dominion over how a terminally ill person’s life will end. It reduces the arbitrary nature of impending death and helps lessen the fear of future pain or suffering; making the terminal illness more psychologically bearable in the meantime.

So while the anti-assisted suicide movement may see Brittany Maynard’s choice to continue living beyond her appointed death date as an opportunity for their cause, it isn’t. Her decision is actually a powerful, powerful argument for assisted suicide. Maynard, by her own declaration, is in a happier, more joyful and better place psychologically now than she was before, because she has this control over her future.

In exercising her choice about when to die, Brittany Maynard has shown the presence of mind and the capability of being able to make a decision in her own best interests. She has done so in the face of phenomenal global expectation and incredible emotional public pressure. And it is that positive psychological state and peacefulness of mind, that is exactly what access to physician-assisted suicide is intended to achieve.

No matter how renowned she has become, Brittany Maynard is a person and not a cause. Her decision tomorrow is hers and hers alone. And despite how gut-wrenchingly sad her situation is, we should all be comforted in the knowledge that no matter what Maynard’s decision turns out to be, it will be the right one for her.

If you or anyone you know needs help seek out Beyond Blue or call Lifeline on 131 114.