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Of Michael Landon and Brittany Maynard: The Changing Meaning of Courage in the Face of Pending Death

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Michael Landon, the hugely popular television star of Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven, died in 1991 at age fifty-four. Landon’s last act—if you will—was widely hailed as his best:  He publicly announced his diagnosis with terminal pancreatic cancer, appeared on the Tonight Show to openly discuss his pending death with Johnny Carson (almost unprecedented back then), and gave several interviews announcing his determination to hang on until the end. He told Life, “If I’m gonna die, death’s gonna have to do a lot of fighting to get me.”

Landon’s grit and determination inspired the nation. When he died a few months later, praise for his unshrinking courage led the obituaries. “Goodbye Little Joe,” in People, exemplified the media’s approach:

As word of his condition spread, thousands of letters of encouragement and sympathy arrived daily. Scores of friends visited the house and stood vigil at the gates of the ranch. “I have X amount of energy,” said Landon, “and what I have, I want to spend with my family.”

Landon’s youngest children, Sean, 4, and Jennifer, 7, were “emotionally distraught,” says longtime friend and business partner Kent McCray, “but Michael passed his strength along to them.” According to colleague John Warren, Landon also spent time videotaping his last wishes to family and friends.

If his friends and family had solace, it was in Landon’s extraordinary calm. Says Flynn of his old friend’s last hours: “It was like going off a diving board. He knew it was coming, and he was brave to the last.

Attitudes have changed about disease and death since then—and, in my view, not for the better. Indeed, today, many might secretly consider Landon a chump for choosing to struggle until his natural death.

If that seems harsh, consider the ongoing international media swoon over twenty-nine-year-old Brittany Maynard, who has announced her plan to commit assisted suicide—legal in Oregon, where she moved from California after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

Maynard is the subject of a well-planned PR campaign orchestrated by the George Soros-funded assisted-suicide advocacy group Compassion and Choices (formerly known as the Hemlock Society). C & C’s press release applauds Maynard’s “courage to tell her story as she is dying and alert all Americans to the choice of death with dignity” as “selfless and heroic.”

It’s one thing for a special-interest advocacy group to spin Maynard’s story in its ideological direction—and to be sure, Maynard is cooperating in that endeavor. But it is odd how eagerly the media has picked up this narrative of “courage” and “heroism.” There have been more than seven hundred assisted suicides in Oregon, and none—not even the first one—received the attention being devoted to reporting Maynard’s intentions.

More, it is striking how the reporting about Maynard’s decision to die resembles the reporting about Landon’s courage twenty-three years ago. For example, People, which once applauded Landon for fighting to the end, now has the mirror-opposite take about Maynard. It even made her a cover story:

For the past 29 years, Brittany Maynard has lived a fearless life—running half marathons, traveling through Southeast Asia for a year and even climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

So, it’s no surprise she is facing her death the same way. On Monday, Maynard will launch an online video campaign with the nonprofit Compassion and Choices, an end-of-life choice advocacy organization, to fight for expanding Death with Dignity laws nationwide.

Suicide has made Maynard an international celebrity. Partly, that’s because she is the perfect icon: young, pretty, newly wed, tragically dying, and transgressive for wanting to kill herself rather than face the rigors of late-stage brain cancer.

But that alone doesn’t explain why she has received the kind of high-profile attention usually reserved for movie stars, rock stars, and presidential candidates. She has been the subject of stories in Time, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, CNN, PBS, ABC, CBS, CNN—the list goes on. I mean, you know you’ve hit the big time when Rosie O’Donnell lauds you on The View!

But what if Maynard followed Landon’s path instead? She’d still be young, pretty, newly wed, and tragically dying—but there would be no cover stories in People or applause from Rosie O’Donnell. In fact, we would never have heard of her.

That speaks volumes about the state of our culture: If assisted suicide is now considered “courageous” and equates with “death with dignity,” doesn’t that imply that people like Landon who choose to “fight against the dying of the light” are undignified and perhaps less courageous?

Maynard isn’t nihilistic. She is just scared. Those using her tragedy for their own purposes—policy advocacy, ratings, Internet hits, etc.—can’t say the same.

The words of Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne keep ricocheting around my brain: “A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death. A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.”


Daniel Miller is responsible for nearly all of National Right to Life News' political writing.

With the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, Daniel Miller developed a deep obsession with U.S. politics that has never let go of the political scientist. Whether it's the election of Joe Biden, the midterm elections in Congress, the abortion rights debate in the Supreme Court or the mudslinging in the primaries - Daniel Miller is happy to stay up late for you.

Daniel was born and raised in New York. After living in China, working for a news agency and another stint at a major news network, he now lives in Arizona with his two daughters.

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