The slippery slope of assisted suicide

John M. Crisp
John M. Crisp

Brittany Maynard is the human face of the proposition that Americans who are threatened by a terminal illness should have more freedom to choose the time, place and manner of their own deaths.

In April 2014, Maynard was diagnosed with a form of brain cancer. With no hope for a cure, she prepared to die. By October, she had checked off the last item on her “bucket list,” a visit to the Grand Canyon.

Death by brain cancer is often a prolonged, painful and undignified experience, so Maynard moved, with her family, to Oregon, one of three states with laws that permit a physician to assist a terminal patient in ending her life. Which is what Maynard did, on Nov. 1, 2014.

Brittany Maynard’s story strongly supports more choice in dying, but what about the case of Jeffrey Spector?

Last May, Spector, 54, travelled from his home in Britain to Zurich, checked into the clinic of an organization called Dignitas and had himself put to death, against the wishes of his family.

Spector wasn’t terminally ill, but he had lived for six years with an inoperable tumor that had wrapped itself around his spinal cord and threatened him at any time with quadriplegia.

Euthanasia’s slippery slope gets treacherous quickly. Last week HBO’s “Vice” reported on the liberal assisted-suicide laws in the Netherlands, which don’t require a terminal diagnosis.

Thus we find ourselves inside the home of a cheerful Dutch woman in her 60s, on the day before her death. She was not physically ill, but she had suffered from irresolvable depression for decades. Her children are grown and on their own. She simply no longer wanted to live. The next day, the laws of the Netherlands accommodated her.

It can get more complicated: Last week, Charles Lane, writing in the Washington Post, reported on the case of a Dutch psychiatric patient known as 2014-77. As a child he suffered from neglect and abuse and by age 10 had been diagnosed with autism. His life was miserable for two decades and he attempted suicide repeatedly. More treatment was attempted, but finally doctors complied with his request to end his life.

Perhaps we can distill some principles out of all this complexity: (1) The clarity of a case like Brittany Maynard’s shouldn’t obscure the moral and ethical dangers of assisted suicide. (2) Europeans deserve credit for attempting to deal realistically with the hopelessness, helplessness and desperation that many feel at the end of life. (3) Society has an obligation to spend resources to mitigate the psychological and physical distress that causes people to commit suicide every day. (4) Physical illness is not the only condition that makes life seem no longer worth living. And (5) while others have a stake in our choices, a dearly held right should be deciding not only how we live, but how we die.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College. Email: