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Controlling death

Miodrag Soric / bkNovember 4, 2014

The suicide of the terminally ill Brittany Maynard is an attempt to control something that, ultimately, cannot be controlled, says DW's Miodrag Soric.

Brittany Maynard. (Photo: Compassion & Choices/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Brittany Maynard, 29 years old and suffering from terminal cancer, decided to take her own life. Doctors in the US state of Oregon prescribed her the appropriate poisons. Since the young woman talked about her impending death on social media, the event has made waves on Twitter and Facebook. Most people showed understanding for her decision. Many believe it is no-one's business - least of all the state's - how someone dies. Brittany Maynard consciously prepared her suicide in such a way as to give it public impact. She wanted to give other people the courage to follow her example: usher in death in a self-determined manner.

She moved to Oregon with her husband because, ever since a referendum 20 years ago, there have been clear regulations legalizing assisted suicide. Two doctors must confirm in writing that the illness will lead to death within six months. But unlike in the Netherlands, they are not permitted to administer the injection themselves. In short, many in the US consider Oregon's laws a model. The states of Washington and Vermont have already adopted them. They are also being discussed in the UK and Germany.

Miodrag Soric. (Photo: DW)
Miodrag Soric runs DW's Washington bureauImage: privat

A controversial decision

This liberal law is in line with the zeitgeist. It reflects a principle that we adhere to in life: individual will is central. It is a question of personal choice what career you go for, where you live, whether you choose to start a family or not. It is right that there is outrage when the state aims to limit personal freedom.

But the issue become difficult when something happens beyond one's control - such as with a serious illness or an impending death. Brittany Maynard could not prevent her death, so she at least wanted to decide the when and how. She wanted to decide for herself when her life was worth living, and when it wasn't.

Of course, her decision has also met with opposition in the US, particularly among conservative Christians, who have a slightly different relationship to life and death. For them, life is something that a person doesn't give themselves, but is a gift from God - a gift that death cannot take away. Christians live and die before God. His "will be done," as the Lord's Prayer says. That's why many oppose assisted suicide as it is practiced in Oregon.

A universal issue

Some studies have shown that people who want to die are less interested in lessening their physical pains than in keeping control of their deaths. A lot of sick people don't want to be a burden to their relatives. But aren't those people robbing themselves and their family members of an existential experience - a special bond that is part of a fulfilled life? When is suffering pointless, and when isn't it?

Believers and non-believers alike are unified by the desire for a dignified death. Doctors play an important role when they prescribe a pain-relieving drug. But they should not be left alone with the issue of assisted suicide. They cannot be expected to cope with the burden of choosing between life and death. After all, they have sworn an oath to protect lives, not end them.

When it comes to assisted suicide, everyone carries the responsibility: doctors, politicians, religious leaders, family members. But, at the end, they can't maintain control over the final moments of life. That control doesn't exist.