Just two months ago, the cover of People magazine was a tribute to late actor Robin Williams, who had just taken his own life. As they put it, Williams, “lost his battle with mental illness.” That they considered his death a tragedy was eminently clear. Fast-forward to the most recent issue, and People has an entirely different take on suicide.
This week’s People features Brittany Maynard, the 29 year-old woman with terminal cancer who captured national attention when she moved to Oregon in order to be able to legally end her life. People’s coverage of her pending suicide is wholly different from its coverage of William’s suicide. The coverage of Maynard includes language like “die in peace” and “heart of a warrior.”
“Maynard is staying focused on what’s important…though that doesn’t mean it’s been easy” they write.
They make it sound like she’s going through a divorce, not planning her own death and using it to campaign for the social acceptance of suicide for the suffering.
Maynard appears on the cover in a silk blouse, with glossy makeup and golden baubles, and the subtitle, “Brittany Maynard photographed exclusively for People October 11, 2014.” In short, People glamorizes Maynard and categorizes her suicide as a “controversial choice,” imbibed with a certain daredevil quality that seems intended to evoke our awe, not our sadness.
But what makes her suicide any different from that of Robin Williams? He faced a terminal diagnosis too, one that involves years of suffering and bodily unraveling, one for which there is no cure. Our society, increasingly steeped in a culture of death, doesn’t really have a good answer to the swelling tide of social acceptance for what the pro-suicide movement like to euphemize as “death with dignity.”
No doubt, we all owe Maynard our compassion. It’s hard to fathom the suffering of a 29 year-old newlywed faced with terminal cancer. As she said to People, “Dan and I have given up our dreams of having a family. My mother is soon to lose her only child. We can all agree that no parent should bury their child.” As a 29 year-old beginning my own family, her story hits especially close to home.
But society’s big mistake is in believing that suicide can be a compassionate or dignified choice. Suicide is suicide. There is nothing that can change that. You can make it legal. You can make it seem less horrible by using needles instead of some rope and a chair or a gun. You can put a beautiful woman on the cover of a celebrity magazine as a spokeswoman. But it’s still suicide, and the reality is that anyone who commits suicide, or even ponders it, is suffering deeply.
Assisted suicide only compounds the tragedy and the inhumanity of taking one’s life because it makes the law and other people complicit. It inverts our human obligation to help each other avoid death as much as possible and instead disincentivizes people to reach out to those who are suffering the most in society, usually the elderly, the disabled, those in chronic pain, or the terminally ill. Legal suicide gives society a giant cop-out for doing its most basic duty: caring for these people. With euthanasia, we can all just turn the other way while they take their own lives.
People magazine should be ashamed for giving a platform to a pro-suicide agenda. They might as well have built the gallows for Robin Williams and every other person who suffers with so little hope that they’d rather take their own life than live just one more day. Brittany Maynard’s suicide will be just as tragic as Robin Williams’ and that of every other person who follows in their path. People can do better than profiting off of death.