We all know the basics of this story. Brittany Maynard was only 29 when she took a barbiturate prescription and ended her life.  In the weeks leading up to that act, she had become the best known advocate for the right to kill ourselves in the face of illness, and the videos she made justifying her decision were literally everywhere. In the aftermath of her passing she has become a social media rock star, residing somewhere between Joan of Arc and Princess Diana on the pantheon of young (and "hot") Caucasian women who have died too young. New York Magazine's Lisa Miller notes...

"On my Facebook feed and on Twitter, in articles passed around friend-to-friend, I’ve watched Maynard be called courageous, inspirational, an angel; she is resting with the stars, her admirers say. For an unknown woman, especially, facing a difficult disease, cancer, that nevertheless kills almost 600,000 people annually, choosing to end her own life before the disease does it for her, like countless thousands who refuse nourishment in the end and “turn their face to the wall,” it has been an astonishing outpouring of reverence and support."

It is awful and hideous when someone with Brittany Maynard's gifts dies before their time. Part of the reason premature death is often a perversely great career move for folks such as Elvis and Michael and Whitney, is that the public rushes to purchase and possess a relic of the departed. This case is awful in another way, for it has breathed life back into the moribund "death with dignity" movement, and has allowed its image to be tragically rebooted from the creepy Kevorkian era.

The Compassion and Choiceswebsite now stars this obviously attractive young woman as the face of the arguments that lost when the rather malodorous Dr. Jack was appearing on 60 minutes and demonstrating his "Mercitron". No matter how it's packaged, no matter how beautiful the music, the pictures, and the imagery of the now iconic videos, it's still all about suicide. Given the public circumstances of her death, I find myself amongst those asking how free was Brittany's ultimate decision, given that a once major advocacy group, had found new life by packaging her story for their once moribund purposes?

Brittany's second video came out on October 29th. At the time of its release it seemed as Maynard was rethinking at minimum the timing of her demise. She states the following,  “I still feel good enough, and I still have enough joy, and I still laugh and smile with my friends and family enough that it does not seem like the right time,”

The news came on November 2nd. Brittany Maynard had ended her life on the date originally planned. My question is this. Was the timing ultimately driven by choice, or was it also driven by the expectations of the Assisted suicide movement leadership? By the very act of publicizing Brittany's projected death date across the planet, the suicide advocates made it exponentially harder for her to change her mind.

Maynard's tragic illness was manna from heaven for an advocacy group that had seen better times, and gave them a youthful and beautiful spokesperson.  The movement executed an expensive and well executed media campaign to use Brittany's planned suicide to reopen the debate on physician's aiding and abetting death. Her story went immediately "viral." That was not coincidental. The message was clear, kill yourself and you will become an icon. Don’t, and you will seem like a cowardly idiot. Only by finally doing the deed, could Brittany Maynard escape the dark side of internet celebrity with a measure of dignity. 

The media's behavior in this story was predictably south of ethical. People Magazine in particular highlighted the Maynard story, ignoring the truth that by doing so, the media is essentially advancing the acceptability of killing oneself. Those of a certain vintage, remember well the journalism class discussions of the way to handle suicide stories., in the aftermath of the publication of the assisted suicide movement's do it yourself manual, Final Exit by Derek Humphry. That was due to the increase in suicides by usage of the author's stated methods .  

An interesting  sidelight to the Maynard coverage are the words of the World Health Organization which details how "the degree of publicity given to a suicide story is directly correlated with the number of subsequent suicides," and notes "suicides involving celebrities have had a particularly strong impact. " The WHO noted "an increase in suicide up to 10 days after television news reports of cases of suicide." with "  highly publicized stories that appear in multiple programmes on multiple channels seem to carry the greatest impact - all the more so if they involve celebrities. " The WHO guidelines for reporting suicide stories states these best practices for the media to follow, in order to prevent one suicide from leading to others....

" • Don’t publish photographs or suicide notes.
   • Don’t report specific details of the method used. 
   • Don’t give simplistic reasons. 
   • Don’t glorify or sensationalize suicide. 
   • Don’t use religious or cultural stereotypes. 
   • Don’t apportion blame."

Besides the violation of best ethical practices, most of the stories read as if Brittany Maynard had no alternative but to off herself. Rare was the mention of hospice and the other care available to alleviate suffering. The confusion of this suicide with a "death with dignity", coupled with the viral nature of the coverage, is nothing more or less than the media telling others that suicide is an option for their problems no matter their scale. For when the door of acceptability is opened, the other value judgements become fair game for consideration. If a suicide in the context of illness is an acceptable act, is suicide when confronting other tragedies essentially really wrong? If Brittany Maynard's suicide is an act of courage, how do we redefine when suicide is cowardly? 


Popular Posts