When the story of Brittany Maynard surfaced in the international media last week, I was approached by a few supporters to ask what could be done about the media reporting. How could we respond?
To recap, Brittany Maynard is a 29 year old Californian woman who was diagnosed with a brain tumour - stage 4 glioblastoma - and told she had only six months to live. She has decided to commit suicide under the Oregon assisted suicide provisions on the 1st of November - days after her husband's birthday.
With the apparent agreement of her family, Maynard moved to Oregon and has completed the statutory pre-requisite changes to her status as a resident of Oregon so as to avail herself of the Oregonian law.
This is all very sad. The poignancy of her situation and being a good looking, young newlywed and the way the media has chosen to characterise this story, in my judgement, told me that no reasoned attempt to put another perspective had any hope of being aired in the media - unless it was to portray the anti-euthanasia movement as being heartless and cruel.
However, serious bloggers in the United States and elsewhere have taken to their blogs to air what are genuine and very serious consequences of this kind of glamourous and 'heroic' portrayal of suicide.
A US disability activist blogging under the name of 'Angry Black Woman' bells the cat on how the portrayal of Maynard affects people living with disability:
I am deeply angry about this. Why? Because if this woman didn't have a medical condition, we would be begging her not to do it. In some states, she'd already be involuntarily committed to get her some treatment. But, because she has a tumor, she is considered brave for doing what she plans to do.
I am sick and tired of suicide being romanticized for people with disabilities, yet vilified for nondisabled folks. You can't have it both ways. Suicide is a tragedy no matter who does it. It affects everyone around the person who took his or her life - family, friends, loved ones and the community around that person.
Why is it that disabled folks are considered brave for killing ourselves? It all goes back to the societal attitude of better dead than disabled or better dead than to have THAT condition. People see those of us with disabilities as useless and worthless. We are presumed incompetent and our abilities, indeed, everything we do, including the act of living, is called into question.
We humans tend to fear and hate what we don't understand, and disability is no exception. It's why our community is treated the way it is. Sure, many people will say that they support us, but I look at how we are treated by those who have the real power - those who make the laws, rules, policies and systems that govern our lives.
What Brittany Maynard plans to do is tragic enough, but it is all the more tragic to the disability community because it is subtle coercion telling us that we not only have the right, but the duty to die. That's what it's all leading to - these physician assisted suicide laws and the belief that people with disabilities who take their own lives are heroes - it is leading us down the path to the day when we won't have a choice - we'll have laws on the books requiring us to die - unless we can stop this notion that us killing ourselves is an act of bravery, selflessness or heroism. To get to that, we have to abolish the world view that it's better to be dead than disabled.
Suicide is a horrible, awful tragedy no matter who you are.
Precisely so. We have long argued that it is hypocritical that society should properly invest so much in suicide prevention and yet so easily tolerate and even endorse suicide for those who have serious medical issues or for those whom the likes of Philip Nitschke argues, make a supposedly 'rational' decision to die.
Maynard has, unsurprisingly, become a cause celebre for the pro-euthanasia & assisted suicide movement. One news report said that she is 'using her last days to help others in similar situations, volunteering for Compassion and Choices.' Compassion and Choices is the leading pro-assisted suicide movement in the US. Disability Rights movements such as Not Dead Yet and Second Thoughts have called out C & C for what it says is 'exploiting an individual' for their ends.
Bill Peace, who blogs under the name 'Bad Cripple' said:
Maynard is the perfect choice for Compassion and Choices to partner with... I would sourly note she is the perfect person for Compassion and Choices to exploit.
Peace goes on compare his opposition to assisted suicide and Maynard's activism to the opposite end:
What makes Maynard different is the slick packaging of her life into a tear jerker like framework. She is unquestionably picture perfect for Compassion and Choices. The emotional manipulation via imagery involved is over the top. It is a dodge, a shell game. Replace fact with emotion. Maynard's role is to incite sympathy without thought.
He went on to add:
(No) new ground is being broken by Maynard. What is different is the timing and imagery that make her story impossible to ignore. Many tears will be shed in an effort to quickly push through assisted suicide legislation. Who wants to have a serious debate about end of life after having their heart broken? We do not need thought we need action and we need action now! Maynard is sure to remain in the news for the rest of October. If she does indeed commit suicide the story will continue for a finite period of time but not interfere with Thanksgiving day football games. Her funeral will no doubt provide equally emotional visuals. I am not thrilled to pen these words--they are hard in the extreme. I am sure she believes the passage of assisted suicide legislation will give her short life meaning. I understand this sort of reasoning. While I am not dying, I get tremendous satisfaction advocating for other people with a disability. Lost in the sea of raw emotion is the simple fact there must be a counter point. For me that counter point is the unwillingness to consider even the most ill or most disabled lives have value. Maynard is unwilling to explore a different, albeit very short, life experience.
The anger in the disability community is palpable. The packaging of Maynard's intentions as 'heroic' and 'brave' have the effect - intended or otherwise - of making those that want to live on with such disabilities feel that somehow they are being selfish; that they should follow Maynard's 'heroic' decision.
A number of commentators have reflected similarly to Bill Peace in observing that shortly after her death Maynard and her story will fall off the media radar. But the pro-euthanasia & assisted suicide lobby will attempt to perpetuate her memory. Not the memory of a person, but the memory of an emotion attached to a personal story of hardship with the sole intent of tugging at the hearts of legislators across the USA and elsewhere.
Wesley Smith observes:
- Assisted suicide movement leaders are always on the lookout for attractive cases to further their cause, and clearly believe they have one in Maynard because of her youth, beauty, and the tragedy of her condition.
- The movement has obviously orchestrated an expensive and very well planned media campaign to use her planned suicide to force open the door to doctor-prescribed death. I mean the story is all over the place. That doesn't happen by accident.
Smith is critical of the media's role in the whole sad affair:
- Media know they are being played. But, if it bleeds, it leads!
- By breathlessly pushing the Maynard story, the media are pushing suicide. This totally violates media guidelines for reporting suicide stories issued by the World Health Organization.
- Why is this case making headlines? There have been hundreds of assisted suicides with nary a peep from the media. And cases that make legalized prescribed suicide look bad are assiduously ignored.
- Many of the stories read as if she has no choice but to kill herself. No mention of the potential of hospice and other care opportunities to alleviate her suffering.
- By pushing suicide as death with dignityâ€“and by giving so much attention to her deathâ€“the media tell others that suicide is the right answer for them too.
Most poignantly, Smith also observes that taking this celebrity route to suicide most likely means that Maynard would find it almost impossible to change her mind:
(M)ost egregiouslyâ€“by validating and extolling her self-termination, assisted suicide advocates make it harder for her to back off the ledge.
I saw this in the Nancy Crick case in Australia. Assisted suicide advocates and the ghoul Philip Nitschkeâ€“were all with her when she planned to kill herself. Then, when Crick had doubts, they backed away from her. The message was clear, kill yourself and we are your friends. Don't, and we don't care about you. When she finally did the deed, she had assisted suicide advocates in the room with her. When she took the poison, they applauded.
The media more and more these days feeds off sensationalism and emotionalism. Check out the standard of journalism in any number of stories on the average newspaper's websites and you'll see what I mean. 'Click Bait' as they call it, is gutter journalism; write an emotive headline, grab a short video if you can and social media will beat a clicking path to your door. All aimed at pitching advertising space to companies at a higher and higher rate. It is pathetic. There is little or no social conscience evident here or if there is it is manipulated and exploited for an emotional hit.
And what of Maynard's family? We are told that they agreed to her decision to suicide. The Washington Post report has Maynard say of them that they have made a significant 'sacrifice' in moving to Oregon to facilitate her suicide. Maynard has started the Brittany Maynard Find to fight for assisted suicide laws in US states - a clever move by C & C to further exploit this story. Will the family continue with this cause?
My guess is that they will. I've seen this any number of times before. Those that deep down have unease about their support for a suicidal relative have but two choices, really: A public or private admission that they were wrong or an all-out push to change the laws to try and convince themselves that they were right.
The latter has consequences far beyond the planned death of Brittany Maynard. It will act to perpetuate the idea that no one should want to try to live on with a brain tumour. It will re-enforce existing prejudices against people who live with disability adding to coercive influences that they ought to feel that they would be better off dead. It will also feed the insatiable appetite for the macabre and sensational in organisations like C & C who, as the title of Wesley Smith's article suggests, will circle like vultures.