Several days ago, 29-year-old Brittany Maynard exercised the final act of sovereignty over her life: she chose to end it.
She had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and, earlier this spring, had been given six months to live by her California physician. She considered spending her last days in a hospice, but, she explained:
Even with palliative medication, I could develop potentially morphine-resistant pain and suffer personality changes and verbal, cognitive and motor loss of virtually any kind. Because the rest of my body is young and healthy, I am likely to physically hang on for a long time even though cancer is eating my mind. I probably would have suffered in hospice care for weeks or even months. And my family would have had to watch that.
So she and her husband uprooted and moved to Oregon, one of five states that allow doctor-assisted suicide. There, she obtained a lethal dose of barbiturates. She said she wanted "a prescription from a physician for medication that I could self-ingest to end my dying process if it becomes unbearable ... I am not suicidal. If I were, I would have consumed that medication long ago. I do not want to die. But I am dying. And I want to die on my own terms."
Conservatives largely oppose right-to-suicide laws. Many criticized Brittany Maynard's decision. A Vatican official, Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, called it "an absurdity," declaring that suicide "is a bad thing because it is saying no to life and to everything it means with respect to our mission in the world and towards those around us." The National Right to Life organization quotes a woman condemning physician-assisted suicide because "it does not strengthen the common good, but only alienates, separates and dismantles us as a people who truly care for one another."
Here's a radical thought for conservatives: Brittany Maynard has a right to life -- to her life. And a right to one's life requires, as an inseparable corollary, the right to terminate it. What else is a right to some action if not the freedom to choose whether or not to engage in it?
Conservatives object to a "nanny state" that tells us we must have smoke detectors in our homes and may not buy large cups of sugared soda. Why then don't they convey any similar outrage toward a paternalistic state that orders us to remain alive against our will?
Conservatives want legal "personhood" to begin at the moment of conception, and are eager to grant microscopic zygotes a "right to life." But when it comes to the lives of actual human beings -- such as the woman who seeks to end an unwanted pregnancy or the terminally ill person who seeks to end unwanted suffering -- their concern for rights disappears.
In reality, hard-core conservatives don't believe in a right to live; what they uphold is a duty to live. They believe that you have an unchosen obligation to keep yourself alive because such is the divine, or the public, will. But if you may not end your life unless God or society gives you permission, then living is not an act of freedom on your part -- it is an act of servitude.
The right to take one's own life, and to be voluntarily assisted by doctors, should be unequivocally acknowledged. As long as a person is mentally competent, he should be legally allowed to decide whether to live or to die. His life, after all, is his own. As Brittany Maynard eloquently expressed this idea: "My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don't deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain? Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?"
Why indeed? That's a question her detractors are unable to answer.