It was a Facebook-era death, packaged for public consumption.
I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I have deep admiration for Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old brain cancer patient who took her life last Saturday, surrounded by her family, bolstered by public support.
Now, she is the national face of the death-with-dignity movement — and, potentially, proof of what happens when celebrity and politics collide. Two years ago, Massachusetts considered a ballot question that would have allowed physician-assisted suicide. It was controversial. It narrowly failed. Would things have gone differently if it had been on the ballot Tuesday instead, with Maynard’s death looming in the background?
It was hard to ignore her story, after all. I first heard about it a few weeks ago, from friends who confessed to spending the morning sobbing in their kitchens, watching her viral video on Facebook. You probably saw it: Maynard described her brain cancer diagnosis, her desire to spend her final months traveling with her family, her decision to move to Oregon, one of the few states with legalized physician-assisted suicide.
It was heartbreaking, and also artfully produced, with flattering lighting and atmospheric music and a slideshow of gorgeous photos. This was the work of Compassion & Choices, a national death-with-dignity advocacy group, which Maynard willingly supported — and whose website now asks for donations to “Brittany’s Fund,” to support physician assisted suicide laws in other states.
For advocates, this is, undeniably, a moment; the face of the death-with-dignity movement hasn’t always been so sympathetic, or so devastatingly articulate. For a long time, it was Dr. Jack Kevorkian: Dr. Death. Even Compassion & Choices underwent a rebranding in 2005 — shedding its old name, the Hemlock Society, and some of its extreme image. (At the time of the name change, the group’s founder wrote that his original goal was to “educate and advise thousands of dying people to know how to bring about their peaceful ends when dying, trapped in a ruined body, or just plain terminally old, frail, and tired of life.”)
Today, most death-with-dignity advocates don’t speak in such open-ended terms, and current laws have a much more limited scope. Massachusetts’ 2012 ballot question — largely driven by a separate advocacy group called the Death With Dignity National Center — would essentially have duplicated the Oregon law, which applies only to people with terminal illnesses.
Back then, fierce opposition came from Catholic groups; the question lost badly in Latino communities, where priests were outspoken against it. But the public debate was often about ambiguity, not principle. Research showed that Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly believed that patients should control their deaths, said strategist Joe Baerlein, who helped lead the opposition. Where people balked, he said, was over methods and details: The fact that a doctor didn’t have to be present, the amount of medication required to do the job, the notion that somebody with depression could get access to the drugs.
There were compelling spokespeople on the other side, too — people who found the campaign’s website, came forward with their stories, testified about their loved ones’ excruciating final days.
Still, Maynard’s story was different. She was only 29, newly wed, and gorgeous. She traveled and taught and volunteered. Her illness was unambiguously terminal. And while in videos, she spoke about physical deterioration and frightening seizures, it’s striking to think of what we didn’t see — what was edited out of the conversation, in that now-familiar Facebook way. Medicine had altered her face and body, but she was still beautiful and measured. She spoke eloquently for herself, presenting physician-assisted suicide as an expression of free will.
Someone less stunning, let’s be honest, might not have become a celebrity, inspiring headlines from People magazine (“Brittany Maynard and Dan Diaz: Inside Their Love Story”) and Fox News Latino (“Brittany Maynard’s Love for her husband Dan Diaz: Strong to the End.”) The public attention became, inevitably, macabre: She had set a Nov. 1 deadline, and that day became an event.
“It was a kind of glammed up Death with Dignity,” said Steve Crawford, who led the strategy in favor of the 2012 ballot question. “It’s more personality-driven than issues-driven. I think more people are talking about her, her husband, and her mother than the law and how it should work.”
But those issues will come up, in plenty of new states — perhaps with a thumb on the scale. Celebrity is power. And Maynard, in death, will live on.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.