Student Journalists Debate ‘Death with Dignity’: Selfish Act or Personal Right?

Roughly a month ago, Brittany Maynard ended her life on her own terms.

Facing an aggressive form of terminal brain cancer with no known cure and a slew of related health ailments that would severely impair her quality of life, the 29-year-old Californian “decided that death with dignity was the best option for me and my family.”

1As she explained in a personal essay for CNN, “It is an end-of-life option for mentally competent, terminally ill patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live. … I could request and receive a prescription from a physician for medication that I could self-ingest to end my dying process if it becomes unbearable. … When my suffering becomes too great, I can say to all those I love, ‘I love you; come be by my side, and come say goodbye as I pass into whatever’s next.'”

Maynard passed away, by choice, on November 1st, accompanied by her family and a frenzy of news reports and social media chatter.

As Khanh Tran writes in The Bottom Line campus newspaper at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “Her young age and circumstances have revitalized the ambivalent debate surrounding the controversial issue of right-to-die. Human beings are born into this world with the right to life. But does that mean they also get to choose whether or not to forfeit their lives?”

In college newspapers nationwide, student journalists have grappled with that question and many others in the wake of Maynard’s death. A majority of related op-eds and columns express support for Maynard’s decision and the larger “dignified death” movement — from either a compassionate or freedom-of-choice perspective.

In respect to the latter, Seattle Pacific University freshman Kelsey Stewart writes in The Falcon student newspaper, “I have known and seen too many people die from battles they could not win. I have also known too many people who have watched it. I would never wish this upon anyone. I wish it was not the unfortunate reality that we find ourselves in, but it is. … Death is uncontrollable and scary. And with a terminally ill diagnosis, a patient’s choices are limited. Death with dignity offers a personal choice to end needless suffering. It is this personal right that should be protected regardless of the beliefs each individual holds.”

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Saint Joseph’s University junior Brian Radermacher agrees with Stewart, arguing the main issue at stake is “the patient’s right to bodily autonomy.”

As he contends in The Hawk student newspaper, “[H]umans are defined by their autonomy. The unique combination of rational thought and free will that results in the capacity to make choices is an integral part of the human identity. By choosing voluntary euthanasia, a patient is choosing to die with their autonomy intact. If his or her final act of autonomy is to die with it, I do not believe anyone should find fault with that. I view the decision as a mark of incredible bravery, equal to fighting for life as long as possible.”

According to Kennesaw State University student Toni-Ann Hall, one other factor to consider is that this fight for life can at times be drawn out for too long by loved ones thinking more with their hearts than their heads.

“Many oppose this act, and think that individuals who choose that route are selfishly ridding the world of themselves — similar to the way that suicide is often perceived,” Hall writes in The Sentinel campus newspaper. “Some believe that it means that those individuals lack faith and will to fight. I have yet to figure out how I feel about this situation, other than being at peace with the fact that those individuals are at peace. It’s a decision they knowingly make. Sometimes families are so loving that they don’t want to let the ones closest to them pass on. This is the reason why some patients are on life-support for long periods of time. It’s the miraculous ‘maybe’ that becomes troubling.”

By comparison, University of California, Riverside student Ricky St. Claire is OK with Maynard’s personal decision but troubled by the larger message surrounding it.

In an op-ed for The Highlander campus newspaper, St. Claire expresses concerns about the “idea that the natural degradation and malfunctioning of the human body is so embarrassing and frightening that it needs to be avoided at all costs. This idea that we have a right to avoid pain and suffering. This idea that death is preferable to dying. This idea that we can have some control over it. That’s not the right message to send to people. Everyone has different sources of pain, different sources of suffering and everyone has different levels of tolerance for that. We need to help each other as individuals, and recognize that everyone has different journeys ahead of them.”

In response, Tran at UCSB does not see voluntary euthanasia as a protest against the journey of dying naturally. Instead, from Tran’s perspective, it is simply a dignified option which should be available to those knowingly facing an especially debilitating end.

“Many victims of incurable diseases do not want to spend their final days in the hospital, with their body dependent on several medications and tormented by multiple surgeries,” Tran contends in the Bottom Line. “No one has the right to tell others to live their lives with a prolonged torture of emotional and physical pain. Legalizing the right to die would not cause suicide to be a norm, but humanize it and provide a safe and controlled exit for those who really need it.”

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