Did Brittany Maynard die freely? This is the question that must be asked after the attractive 29-year-old woman with a brain tumour announced earlier in the week that she would probably postpone the assisted suicide she had scheduled for Saturday, November 1.

“I still feel good enough, and I still have enough joy — and I still laugh and smile with my friends and my family enough — that it doesn’t seem like the right time right now,” she said in a YouTube video.

Sometime, yes, but not Saturday.

It must have been a bitter pill for Compassion & Choices, the assisted suicide lobby group which had used her as a poster girl for its campaign for legalisation. The members of its boards of directors and advisors are nearly all in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Here was a winsome and articulate woman in her 20s, a woman who had attracted international media attention by setting a firm date for her assisted suicide, a woman who was a shining icon of everything they were fighting for. And she had stepped back from the cliff’s edge. 

Then came news a few hours ago from Compassion & Choices. A Facebook post said: “We’re sad to announce the passing of a dear and wonderful woman, Brittany Maynard. She passed peacefully in her bed surrounded by close family and loved ones.”

It could be the opening for a Kay Scarpetta novel. How can anyone be sure now that Brittany died freely? How can anyone be sure that Compassion & Choices did not apply moral pressure on her to fulfil her commitment and not to disappoint the wonderful people who had made her famous?

Just for the record, I’m reasonably confident that  everything about Brittany’s death was completely aboveboard. No need to call in the detectives.

But one of the problems with assisted suicide is that the principal witness is no longer with us. We can be pretty confident — but we can’t be certain.

What is certain is that Brittany’s story was exploited to the hilt by the wrinkled crew at Compassion & Choices. There can be no more persuasive explanation than an attractive, intelligent young woman with tears trickling down her cheeks. As she dabs at her eyes, the trembling words always sound heart-piercingly right. Perhaps from an evolutionary perspective, we’re programmed to agree with her, because young women need to be protected so that they can live to have a family.

It’s the tears that swept us away in the video made by Compassion & Choices about Brittany, not the ideas. Those are pretty shop-worn. Marcia Angell, an C&C advisor and a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, puts them in a nutshell in a recent Washington Post op-ed: “people are increasingly asking why anyone — the state, the medical profession, religious leaders — would presume to tell someone else that they must continue to die by inches, against their will.”

Laws must be changed, in other words, to support absolute autonomy. But if this is the case, isn’t it discriminatory to restrict this to the terminally ill? Why not lovelorn teenagers or impecunious grandmothers? It’s a blindingly obvious objection which is not refuted in Brittany’s video. 

Sorry, no English sub-titles

Ironically, the same tear-soaked argument was used by the Nazis to persuade Germans to support assisted suicide. Brittany’s beautiful wedding photos, her artfully scripted message, the lachrymose piano chords, her family’s words of love and support — they all reminded me of a competent 1941 German melodrama called Ich Klage An (I Accuse). The young wife of a doctor begs for release before she becomes “deaf, blind, idiotic”; the family doctor refuses; her husband obliges. In a final speech before a jury her grieving husband accuses the law of being inhumane.

It seemed like a good argument then and an estimated 18 million Germans watched the film. It still seems like a good argument. The only problem, in both cases, is what comes afterwards… In Ich Klage An, the beautiful Hanna, like Brittany, is surrounded by people who only want the best for her, people who respect her autonomy. But the principle of voluntary assisted dying was then applied to tens of thousands of disabled Germans whose autonomy was ignored. Significantly, the Nazi secret police reported that audiences “were reluctant to face the moral implications of the film”.

I’m reasonably confident that Compassion & Choices has no sinister plans for doing away with thousands of American senior citizens. But I am quite confident that it is not squarely facing the moral implications of its arguments.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.