Since Oregon's Death with Dignity Act went into effect in 1997, 752 people have ended their lives painlessly and on their own terms after successfully seeking the services of a physician -- fewer than the number some critics feared.
This is because the law not only has safeguards to ensure that a patient is competent to make the decision (e.g., she is not clinically depressed), but also that the diagnosis leading to the decision concludes the affliction is terminal and death is imminent.
The case of Brittany Maynard of Oregon, who is suffering from the most aggressive form of brain cancer (stage four glioblastomic brain tumor), clearly falls within those parameters, so her decision to end her life doesn't seem to be an abuse of this law.
Why, then, is this particular case getting so much attention?
Perhaps because Maynard, as her now-famous wedding portrait reveals, is a beautiful 29-year-old -- the very picture of vitality, someone whose confident smile and personable expression signal a capacity to relate to others and make a difference in their lives.
In view of this image, her planned death strikes one as counterintuitive. There is another feature of this case that makes it importantly different from the others. Maynard has announced -- well in advance of her death -- the day on which she intends to end her life: Nov. 1.
Maynard has said she is not suicidal, and we should believe her. To be fair, we should assume she speaks in good faith that she is motivated by the desire to die on her terms as well as call attention to the humaneness in a law that allows one to die with dignity (versions of which exist in only two other states).
Nevertheless, the way Maynard has gone about planning her death raises questions about whether her right to die has been glorified in a way that fails to display the proper humility one should have about being alive.
One need not avail oneself of Scripture or the clergy to subscribe to the notion that each moment is a gift. The difference we stand to make in the lives of others can be by virtue of the smallest gesture. Before the moment when Maynard's suffering becomes unbearable, that suffering does not supersede the benefit she loses by cutting short the positive difference she could make in the lives of others.
This reflection leads us to an additional issue with the advance death notice. What is she to do if she discovers on Nov. 1 that she is not quite as poorly off as she expected? Is she still committed to ending her life because she's publicly promised in media interviews that's what she will do?
Maynard has the right by law, and morally as well, to end her life under the set of circumstances in which she and her family are courageously struggling.
However, this right is not synonymous with a nobility in celebrating -- much less celebritizing -- that decision. When Maynard's suffering becomes too great, she can legally end her life in a manner that will minimize her pain. But the loss of her from our midst should be seen as a loss incurred by all of us to avoid the greater evil of her suffering.
Maynard is choosing between tragic options. To be blind to that is to fail to acknowledge that sadness -- not fascinated anticipation -- is the appropriate attitude regarding the loss of one whom others love, and who has the capacity to love others.
Andrew Flescher is associate professor of preventive medicine and a faculty member in public health at Stony Brook University. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Organ Shortage Crisis in America: Civic Duty, Markets, and Closing the Gap."