ON JANUARY 1st 29-year-old Brittany Maynard (pictured) was diagnosed with brain cancer. On November 1st she plans to end her life by ingesting a lethal medication prescribed by her physician. Only five states (Vermont, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and New Mexico) recognise the right to die, so Ms Maynard relocated from California to Oregon to secure this right. This is a move that many Americans are unable to make.
Assisted suicide has been legal in a few European countries for years. But progress in America has been halting: in 1997 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the constitution does not include the right to suicide. Aid-in-dying has ideological affinities with other issues where personal autonomy and liberty are at stake—same-sex marriage, for instance, or a woman’s right to an abortion. Yet many Americans have long been uncomfortable with sanctioning suicide. This seems to be changing. Now more than two-thirds of Americans support aid-in-dying laws for the terminally ill and mentally competent. Death with dignity legislation is now pending in seven states.
But why have Americans held out for so long? And what has changed now?
A guaranteed right to an easeful death is a complex matter, made trickier still by religious doctrine. Many believe that their lives are not theirs to take. John Locke, a father of liberalism, bequeathed Americans a troubling legacy on this front. While he helped to promote American ideals of autonomy and individual rights, he also argued that humans are the property of God, and therefore lack the right to end life.