Perhaps the most controversial thing to be asserted as a fundamental right, the right to die -- to voluntarily choose to terminate one's own life -- presents a question, itself fundamental, of what it means for man to be free while at the same time existing to some extent as an organ of society. This has been brought to the fore in recent weeks by the case of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman who took to the usual social media outlets to explain her decision to face down an incurable brain tumor by peacefully taking her own life before the tumor took it from her painfully. Maynard presented an odd juxtaposition. She looked young and healthy, but described her ailment and the suffering it inflicted upon her to the last detail.

The pure libertarian view on this is that, as to a person who is legally an adult and of sound mind, the right to end one's own life is as absolute as the right to decide to have raspberry jam instead of strawberry on one's toast in the morning. But there are, obviously, additional complications arising from that notion. For one thing, as Joseph Heller poignantly outlined in Catch-22, being of sound mind is often equated with the desire to live. In the book, the opposite formulation is presented -- the man who wishes to be deemed insane to escape a cycle of hazardous wartime duty is told that his very desire to avoid those hazards is what proves him sane (perpetuating his exposure to those hazards). Conversely, the immediate reaction of many in society to a man's desire to die (even an elderly are gravely injured or disabled person) is that their predilection in that direction signifies their lack of mental capacity, justifying the removal of their own decision-making authority. Piled upon this is the condemnation of suicide as found in many religions.

Brittany Maynard, being a Californian at the start of her story, had to move to Oregon to approach her demise because (for all its reputation as a bastion of liberality) California is one of those places which still treats the desire to die as not only an insane thing, but a criminal one for any who would assist the would-be life-ender. But in Oregon, death (for a terminally ill person) may be helped along by a doctor. Maynard's decision for a physician-assisted resolution of her terminal condition was, unsurprisingly, slammed as "reprehensible" by the Roman Catholic Church (oddly the same church that effectively murdered Savita Halappanavar by refusing her a life-saving abortion, and so remains in an odd place to comment on morality).

But to a degree, the determination of all men to avoid death is, as well, simply a fearful rejection of the baseline reality that everybody does, that millions of people die every day, and that it is our inevitable lot to follow them, whether in a year or in fifty or eighty or a hundred. Like Hugh Jackman's character laughingly realizes at the end of The Fountain, his quest for immortality is futile: "I'm going to die!!" Shakespeare puts it more poetically in MacBeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

We are all going to die. Through the butterfly effect, we may know that a world where I die tomorrow will eventually be fundamentally different from one where I die after twenty-thousand tomorrows, but we can't know whether it will be for the better or for the worse, or simply different. All we can know is that death is inevitable, and some people make clowns of themselves by trying to stave it off longer than realism would allow, and others make bereavers out of their loved ones by pulling it in when they could have experienced so much more of life. My own feeling on this is that we are free within the walls of our own lives to make mistakes, as simple as putting the wrong jam on our toast and as complex as ending our lives earlier than they might have on their own. But to this I will add, when the choice is between death, and needless suffering (ending in death), there seems to be no logic to prohibiting or condemning the person who skips the needless suffering part.