In the October 24, 2014 issue of The Week magazine, on facing pages, two brief articles stare across the fold and staples to challenge each other.

One describes a 29-year-old woman in Oregon, Brittany, recently married, full of life and happiness and love . . . and lethal cancer of the brain.

The other describes a man, Clayton, a convicted murderer, executed by lethal injection for his crimes in Oklahoma.

Brittany faced inevitable, intractable pain.

Clayton died in writhing, protracted pain.

Some say Clayton should not have died that way, and some say that Brittany should not have been allowed to permanently end her suffering.

The state of Oklahoma has spoken publicly in remorse for causing Clayton’s pain.

Brittany spoke publicly on behalf of the rights of others facing terminal, unbearable pain.

Oklahoma says it currently lacks adequate drugs and sufficiently trained medical personnel to administer impending scheduled executions.

Through the Death with Dignity Act, Brittany legally secured from a pharmacy the drugs she administered orally to herself to end her life.

Clayton’s agony inspired renovation of the State Penitentiary execution chamber.

Brittany’s choice inspired moral outrage.

How can these two responses arise from the same society?

If we are required to die – whether by decree of the Court, or by the vagaries of disease, or by our common mortality and the passage of time – how can we, in good conscience, not allow that transition to happen in a kind way, a palliative way?

Neither Brittany nor Clayton wanted to die. The state said he must. Many in our society said she shouldn’t.

Neither Brittany nor Clayton wanted to suffer. Oklahoma is embarrassed that it caused pain when it killed Clayton. Oregon assisted in alleviating Brittany’s suffering when cancer was killing her.

I wonder: what do these two stories want us to hear, to discuss, and to learn as they contemplate each other from pages 4 and 5 of the same magazine?



11 replies
  1. Marian Blue
    Marian Blue says:

    Many ideals in our society, when juxtaposed, are illogical. Often, most illogical are those that deal with our society imposing on others certain standards that are the business of the individual, not the society. Marriage, abortion, suicide, sexual practices, divorce, having children, etc. are best handled by the individuals involved if those individuals are of an age and mental IQ & function able to make those decisions. Granted, people will still argue over that IQ (competence) thing, but, again, it’s usually not the business of those doing the arguing.
    If someone is hurting others, that person needs to be removed from society, but I’m not comfortable with the death penalty. I think we should have prisons that provide useful employment (farming, training assistance dogs, etc.) rather than death rows, but I can’t see our culture changing any time soon.
    Lovely blog and useful to get the thoughts to boil and bubble …

  2. gary
    gary says:

    While wishing for a humane termination can lead to sympathetic support for the suffering of a criminal who has broken the conventions of our culture and brought harm to another human may have noble roots, it is bewildering why a woman should be punished for contracting a fatal disease through no fault of her own and denied compassionate consideration when she chooses to stop her suffering by ending her own life. What is it in the decision to end her life that those opponents find so threatening and intolerable?

  3. Mike Trenshaw
    Mike Trenshaw says:

    Thanks for getting my brain all twisted up so early in the morning! These are the side by side scenarios that will keep conversations going for hours on end.

    Johnny brings up a point about criminals being set free due to DNA evidence, yet these same advances in medical technology may find the cure for that once untreatable medical condition Brittany suffered from. The same can be said for medical suicide/execution. It may become quicker, easier and completely painless, but will that come about too easily and too soon?

    I guess it all comes down to the question; do we use our hindsight, or our foresight? Either way can be difficult.

    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      We’re pretty myopic when it comes to foresight, I’m afraid – mostly we deduce from experience, but even that we don’t always see clearly. Glad you’re up for the conversation – hope your friends and colleagues are too! Let me know, from time to time, where your conversations take you.

  4. Eileen Soskin
    Eileen Soskin says:

    Somewhere in the definition of “humane” isn’t there something about alleviating pain? Or not causing it? Or facing it if I must? Or ? Wonderful juxtaposition of two seemingly disparate occurrences that make me think about how our society defines “humane”.

    I really liked the phrase “required to die”.

    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Seems we can’t avoid it – the dying part. Let’s help each other through what humans fear most, by being as humane as possible.

  5. Sue Wright
    Sue Wright says:

    So much to contemplate.
    My knee jerk reaction tells me that Oklahoma needs to go to Oregon and requisition some of the pills that were available to Brittany.

  6. Johnny Palka
    Johnny Palka says:

    Dear Cynthia, I never thought of juxtaposing these two stories, and I have perhaps a simplistic view. I am generally opposed to the death penalty, especially now in view of the many convictions that have been reversed because of new evidence obtained through DNA technology. I thoroughly admire Brittany and her family. I see her as an inspiration, and indeed a personal model, as I contemplate the fact of my own mortality. I find it difficult to accept that people have criticized her, though I know they have. At least I can hope that far more people have said, “I hope I will be able to make such a clear decision about the end of my own life when the time comes.” Thank you, Cynthia, for bringing these two stories forward again, We should not forget them!

    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Thanks, Johnny. This is exactly what I hope for – thoughtful dialogue, inspired by these two dissimilar deaths and linked by our common humanity.


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