Among the quirks of the 19th century British legal system was its treatment of attempted suicide. Considered equivalent to attempted murder, attempted suicide was punishable by hanging. In a sense, then, the law helped ensure that the offending party would likely end up dead, one way or another.
Viewed differently, however, the hanging is great punishment indeed, even for someone who wanted to die. Because suicide is about more than choosing death — it is an assertion of sovereignty over one's own life, and state-ordered execution removes this entirely.
In its obscurity, there's a kernel of sense to the 19th century suicide law, and not only for the religious who believe suicide is a sin ipso facto. The old law was not wrong in seeing some suicides like murders. Suicide can be akin to a crime of passion, an impulsive grip of anguish, a leap toward annihilation neither premeditated nor meticulous, but lethal nonetheless. Crucially though, not all suicide is like this. Brittany Maynard's, for example, was both premeditated and meticulous.
The 29-year-old died on Saturday as she had planned. Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given six months to live. As she explained in a CNN op-ed, options for treatment would have "destroyed the time [she] had left." She moved from California to Portland, Oregon, where the state's 1997 Death With Dignity Act allowed her to obtain a prescription from a physician for a lethal dose of barbiturates.
Telegenic and articulate, Maynard used her last months to advocate for terminal patients' rights to physician-assisted suicide, which is currently legal in the US only in Oregon, Vermont, Washington, New Mexico, and Montana. In a video discussing her decision, she spoke of her desire to die before the cancer removed her autonomy. She explained the agony of a seizure that left her unable to recall her husband's name. She detailed how her healthy appearance belied her pain.
Maynard's case is an unproblematic one in many ways. Her death at a young age is tragic, but it would be no less tragic if it had happened a few months from now after she succumbed to brain cancer. Her decision was about how to die — peacefully, with loved ones, at home — not whether to die. As a moral point, I don't decry suicide even in non-terminal cases. But assisted suicide laws deal with more than this. They work (or should work) to protect the vulnerable from murder — from doctors or relatives who might coerce them to choose suicide — and to protect physicians from becoming unwitting murderers. Not all cases are so clear cut as Maynard's.
Nevertheless, the old canard of a "slippery slope" argument against assisted suicide legislation should itself be dead and buried. Firstly, the Journal of Medical Ethics reported in 2007 that there was no evidence of the abuse of vulnerable patients in Oregon in the 10 years Death With Dignity had been in effect. It is a deeply pessimistic paternalism that seeks to let so many die slow and painful deaths due to unfounded fears of abuse.
If Maynard's case opens up floodgates, it's no bad thing — in fact, Maynard's example of an examined and cherished life should very much become an example for others. More than most, the 29-year-old displayed care for those around her and a deep respect for her own sovereignty and autonomy, which she refused to lose quite literally on the pain (or relief) of death. If there is concern that individuals would too readily choose death when in a state of mental anguish that could be cured or lessened by therapies or medical treatment, then Maynard's deliberated case is no gateway to this.
The old canard of a 'slippery slope' argument against assisted suicide legislation should itself be dead and buried.
When philosopher David Hume wrote in 1750, "I believe that no man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping. For such is our natural horror of death that small motives will never be able to reconcile us to it," he could well have been referring to a case like Maynard's: a life preserved "while it was worth keeping." Hume was wrong only in that not every case of suicide is like Maynard's; some suicides, those akin to crimes of passion, dispose too impulsively of life without giving time to consideration of its worth. If all cases were like Maynard's, Hume's proposition — that a person is always a reliable judge of when to take his or her own life — would be true.
Maynard's expressed fear of growing alienated from herself, or the self she knew, as her cancer advanced is worth taking very seriously. It represents a very considered fear of death; this woman did not want to die and, as such, feared becoming a corpse in life. Her words brought to my mind the writing of Simone Weil. She died of cardiac arrest in 1943, arguably by her own hand through starvation, as the 34-year-old was eating only what she believed those living in German-occupied France were able to eat at the time.
Weil talked about both the types of force in life that turn a person immediately to a corpse, and the force that kills, but does not kill yet. "It will surely kill, it will possibly kill," she wrote, "or perhaps it merely hangs, poised and ready, over the head of the creature it can kill at any moment, which is to say, at every moment…. In whatever aspect, its effect is the same: it turns a man into a stone." As a fight against such a force, Maynard's death is heroic. The force that kills turns us all to corpses, and it is a great strength to refuse, like Maynard, to become "stone" in the meantime. Even if it kills us.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard