.- As a 29 year-old woman with terminal brain cancer reconsiders her resolve to end her life, one scholar says the change of heart indicates a more mature level of thinking.
“That’s advanced thinking, that’s higher order thinking – when you can let go of the trappings of this world and realize there is something else,” reflected Dr. Julie Masters, chairman of the Department of Gerontology at the University of Nebraska.
She told CNA Oct. 30 that Brittany Maynard’s reconsideration is an “interesting development.”
“I think reading some of the things she has said about this idea that she is there with her family and seeing the value of that offers people another perspective on end-of-life care, and what that means,” Masters said.
After being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Maynard announced earlier this month that was planning to end her life Nov. 1. She and her husband moved to Oregon, one of just a few states that allows physician-assisted suicide.
But in a new video, posted Oct. 29, Maynard said she is reconsidering.
“I still feel good enough and I still have enough joy and I still laugh and smile with my family and friends enough that it doesn’t seem like the right time right now,” she stated, adding that the time to take her life will likely come eventually.
Although Maynard did say that her health has been declining, she also stated in the video that “the worst thing that could happen to me is I wait too long because I am trying to seize each day and I lose my autonomy.”
Dr. Masters, who teaches a class on “Death and Dying,” reflected on this vantage point of choice and autonomy, saying it is a common factor when considering end-of-life choices.
“The number one reason why people choose physician-assisted suicide is because of autonomy. They want to maintain their autonomy, their right to choose,” Masters stated.
However, she questioned whether physician-assisted suicide is truly a choice or an expectation.
“We look at physician assisted suicide, and it is a choice in the sense that it is available in five states, that’s reality,” she said. “But the question becomes then, is that an option for people, or does it become an expectation?”
She suggested that the increasing number of physician-assisted suicides can impose an expectation to end one’s life when it is no longer seen to have value.
While noting that she does not know Maynard and cannot speak for her exclusively, Masters said she suspects that the young woman has been given a reason to pause and think about her life.
“That’s important,” Masters said. “It sure sounds like to be able to take a trip with her family and to be surrounded by her family, she is getting a glimpse of a quality of life she hadn’t anticipated.”
Referring to a Fox News piece on the situation, Masters suggested that Maynard is acknowledging the important things in life, adding to the joy that she is still experiencing amidst the suffering in her daily life. This indicates more advanced thinking, she said.
Acknowledging that it is hard to watch someone suffer and die, Masters believes that “we could give a little more attention to relieving suffering.”
While firmly stating a belief that there can be value in suffering, she also noted the importance of comforting and relieving suffering, which can also help alleviate the fear that can accompany the thought of death.
“It’s about fear,” she said, explaining that “people are afraid because they have examples in their mind of other people who have died a hard death.”
Reacting to end-of-life choices out of fear is common, Masters noted, stressing that the pain and symptoms of a terminal illness should not be controlled by this fear, but met with support, care, and comfort.
“That’s where we could do such a better job of communicating options to people. Brittany has not only advanced the movement of Compassion & Choices, but she has also advanced the movement of questioning the value of hospice and palliative care, and the value of life.”
“Death can be a gift, and it can be approached in a comforting way,” Masters said, noting the critical importance of hospice and palliative care for people near death.
When people lose sight, she continued, “they get this tunnel vision, and they only see one option, and that’s suicide.”
“For Brittany, it seemed for awhile as if she thought there was only one option, but now she sees there are other options and maybe she is being open and considering the other options,” Masters suggested.
Acknowledging that Maynard’s story is prompting people to talk about end-of-life issues, Masters said she hopes this will be an opportunity for people to reflect on life and engage in dialogue in order to process what end-of-life decisions really mean.
“This is an opportunity for people to think,” she explained.