Betty Rollin’s principled death raises a question

by John M. Crisp

Betty Rollin, writer and national correspondent for NBC, ABC and PBS, died on Nov. 7 at age 87.

Rollin was known for two memoirs: Her account of her breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy, “First, You Cry” (1976), contributed significantly to a growing openness about breast cancer and the need for early detection; “Last Wish” (1985) told the story of her mother’s death from ovarian cancer in 1983.

But I knew Rollin best through an essay she wrote in 1970 — “Motherhood: Who Needs It?” — which I used to ask my students to read for our freshman writing classes.

Rollin concedes that “Nothing could be worse” than a world without children, but she argues against what she calls the “Motherhood Myth,” the idea that women are driven by an instinctual, biological or psychological imperative that tells them they can’t possibly be happy unless they have children.

She writes approvingly of women who, freed from the constraint of the Motherhood Myth, were beginning to more fully develop themselves and their resources. Should they choose to become mothers, as well, the result will be better and happier parents and children. Or so she argues.

I hadn’t thought of Rollin in years, but I quickly scanned her obituary to see if the Motherhood Myth had finally overtaken her. Evidently, it had not. She died childless, in apparent consistency with the principles she championed in writing.

But Betty Rollin didn’t just die; she killed herself.

Again, however, her suicide was consistent with a principle that she embraced in life. “Last Wish” tells the story:

After her mother had endured treatments that Rollin describes as “horrible,” her ovarian cancer returned; she was given six months to live.

As Rollin recounted in an interview last year with Kunhardt Film Foundation, her mother told her very clearly that she had had a wonderful life, “but that now it was over.” She asked for Rollin’s help in ending her life on her own terms. Rollin and her husband, with the assistance of a sympathetic doctor, complied with her mother’s request, and “she died happily, peacefully, successfully.”

And illegally. In defiance of the advice of her lawyer, Rollin and her husband put themselves at considerable risk by helping her mother die. But they decided they had to take the risk “because it was so reasonable.”

Rollin said last year that she still misses her mother, but “I didn’t grieve for her because I saw her get a death she wanted, and it worked smoothly. She didn’t suffer in the dying. But she was saved from the suffering she would have had, had she remained alive.”

To get the death she herself wanted, Rollin had to go to Basel, Switzerland, where assistance in dying is legal and available. She used Pegasos, an organization that offers an “assisted dying service to approved adults of sound mind,” regardless of their country of origin.

Rollin was not terminal, but a close friend reported that she had been suffering from pain, a gastrointestinal condition and persistent grief at the death of her husband three years ago.

The friend told the New York Times, “True to form, she was resolute in her decision; Betty made it clear she did not want to hear our objections to her plan.”

Accordingly, she brought her life to an end, by her own hand and on her own terms, living and dying according to principles that she advocated in writing.

The complexities of the issue of assistance in dying are far beyond the scope of a column of this length, but the essential question is comparatively straightforward:

Many may choose, for various reasons, to endure the pain, prolonged suffering, fear, uncertainty, depression and expense that very often accompany the process of dying. And they may be willing to impose many of these burdens on their surviving family and friends.

Others, such as Rollin, may wish to control that process themselves and choose the place, time and circumstances of that most personal and private of all experiences: death.

The question is: Why should the first group impose its will on the second?

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Texas and can be reached at jcrispcolumns@gmail.com.