Sunday, February 1, 2015

Ableism in the Brittany Maynard Story

The laws passed are one indicator about how society feels about certain actions.  Often times, laws reflect what society feels should be morally condemned or supported.  In class, when Brittany Maynard was brought up, I couldn’t help but think about how the Die with Dignity Movement, and the laws involved in particular, demonstrates ableist notions revolving around the desirability of disability.

The Brittany Maynard story was a recent news phenomenon that demonstrated the acceptance of ableist ideas by much of the general American society.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Brittany Maynard’s story, you can read more about it here.  Brittany had an aggressive form of brain cancer and chose to use Oregon law to get a prescription to end her own life.

One of the questions presented in class was whether Brittany was afraid of death or disability.  Even if Brittany Maynard was afraid of death, of the physical pain she would feel if she continued to live, or of the prolonged distress her family would suffer had they seen her in pain, the response from society reflected the ableist notion that disability is not something a person would want to live with.  The debate, at least for many people that I know, became a debate revolving around whether a disabled life is a life worth living.  The conversations that I overheard turned into a discussion about whether “I would want to life in ‘that’ physical state” or whether “I would do ‘that’ to my family” or whether “’that’ kind of person deserves relief from their ‘suffering’”.  The way the questions were phrased reflected ableist notions, and of course, ableist responses were elicited.  While suicide was generally condemned for able-bodied persons, suicide was encouraged for individuals with disabilities in these discussions.

Brittany Maynard is not representative of everyone who uses laws like Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, which allows terminally ill patients to commit physician-assisted suicide.  Brittany was a beautiful white girl who grew up in a well-off family; she was well educated.  Brittany lived her whole life as an able-bodied individual until the point she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Throughout the campaign, it was often stressed that Brittany was making an informed decision to end her own life; however, I must question how any person in her situation can really make an informed decision.  She could have received information from doctors on how a body like hers would physically react to cancer, but these doctors never experienced it themselves.  She could have talked to people who have had the same diagnosis and are in a later stage of the cancer, but every person is different in the way their bodies respond, in the way their bodies feel pain, and in the way they mentally cope.  In my opinion, this is a difficult category to make an informed decision on because there is really no way of being informed on how a person would mentally or physically react in such a situation until it happens.

No person wishes to live in pain, but Brittany’s story seems to reflect ableist ideas and a fear of disability.  Like many people, Brittany feared that her disability would progress to a point where she would lose her autonomy.  In a CNN article, Brittany was quoted as saying "[t]he worst thing that could happen to me is that I wait too long because I'm trying to seize each day, but I somehow have my autonomy taken away from me by my disease, because of the nature of my cancer." (see  This mentality reflects ableist notions that having to utilize the help of another person to complete daily tasks is not desirable, and somehow makes you less of a human being, less of an individual, and less important.  Instead, people who discuss this idea often think that having less autonomy by relying on other people makes them a burden.

Brittany Maynard has become a part of our country’s history.  I think she should also become a part of the disability studies' and disability rights movement's dialogue.  Is the Brittany Maynard story sending the wrong message?  Are we glorifying her actions, making her not only into a spokesperson but also a hero, because she reflects our own fears?  Are our ableist ideas poisoning the minds of people facing disability throughout society?  These are questions I think we all must be asking in light of the Brittany Maynard case.

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