These days in America you can do all sorts of things legally, if you don’t mind leaving home.
For example, if you want to cavort with prostitutes, we have a state for that.
If you want to smoke marijuana, we have two states for that, Colorado and Washington, and may soon have more.
And if you are gay and happen to live in a state that still has laws against same-sex marriage, you can travel with your beloved to one of 32 states that now permit same-sex ceremonies.
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But if you are afflicted with a terminal illness that entails the near-certainty of a lingering, painful death, your options are much more limited. Only five states have developed legal provisions that offer the hopelessly ill some control over the circumstances of their deaths, the time, the place, and the depth and extent of their suffering.
Thus Brittany Maynard recently moved from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon, where, after celebrating her husband’s birthday on Oct. 26, she plans, on Nov. 1, to take control of her own demise by ingesting a lethal, but legal, prescription and dying comfortably at a time and place of her choosing.
Maynard, 29, said she is not at all suicidal. But in April she was diagnosed with Stage IV glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor, and was given six months to live. She told People magazine, “I want to live. I wish there was a cure for my disease but there’s not.”
She has carefully considered the end of her too-short life: “I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. Being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.”
Maynard’s choices were limited. Only Oregon and four other states (Montana, Washington, New Mexico and Vermont) have laws that provide hopelessly ill patients with an opportunity to control the way in which they die. Montana and New Mexico permit “aid in dying” but only for residents who already have relationships with local doctors.
So Maynard chose Portland, where — according to her wishes — she will die on Saturday, at home in her own bedroom, surrounded by family and friends.
The logic of this choice is persuasive. The most American of values are freedom and tolerance. If Maynard chooses to die in this way, why should any of the rest of us object?
Of course, opponents of “aid in dying” have legitimate reasons to fear that it could be a slippery slope. Depression can be temporary and can often be resolved. And old people have to be protected from impatient heirs who are in a hurry to execute a will.
But I suspect that most of our resistance to laws that permit assisted suicide stems from less rational feelings, the traditional idea that only God can determine the circumstances of our deaths. Acceptance of the agonies of death is a sign of submission — a willingness to die on God’s terms, rather than ours — and an apt prelude to Paradise.
Perhaps. But not everyone sees it this way. States are moving slowly toward providing more freedom in how we die. In the meantime, citizens must cross state lines, if they have the means, in order to take some control of their deaths.
Citizens without means have only two choices: accept whatever death is granted to them by the treacheries of the human body, no matter how lingering and painful. Or find illegal means to limit the suffering, through suicide or through the compassion of sympathetic doctors and healthcare workers who benevolently look the other way as lethal doses of morphine are administered. This happens more often than we think.
It’s time for more states to expand the options for the terminally ill who face only a lingering, miserable death.
Perhaps by the time you read this Brittany Maynard, surrounded by family and friends, will have already made her comfortable exit from this life, with her dignity and peace of mind intact. Or not. Thanks to Oregon, it’s up to her.
Email Mr. Crisp at firstname.lastname@example.org.