By Emily Belz
Activist J.J. Hanson, a vocal opponent of assisted suicide, died Dec. 30, more than three years after receiving a terminal diagnosis for brain cancer. He was 36. He is survived by his wife, Kristen, and two sons, a 4-year-old and a 6-month-old.
Hanson’s cancer, glioblastoma, was the same aggressive type that has afflicted Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and that had spurred assisted suicide advocate Brittany Maynard to take her own life in 2014. Hanson, a former Marine, served in Iraq and later worked in New York state government, living in the Hudson Valley.
After receiving a four-month prognosis in 2014, Hanson pursued experimental treatments, including immunotherapy, that prolonged his life and allowed him to become a powerful and successful voice against the legalization of assisted suicide.
When the cancer first struck, Hanson had a seizure that took his ability to walk, talk, read, and write. He slowly taught himself to do all those things again, and over the last two years walked the halls of state legislatures with ferocity and a binder of data about assisted suicide under his arm. When I met him as he visited the offices of New York legislators in Albany in 2016, I would never have guessed he had recently struggled with basic cognitive functions like speaking—he could rapidly reel off names and facts.
Hanson made several arguments to legislators against legalizing assisted suicide. First, the practice would target the disabled and the poor, who would feel heavier financial and social pressure to end their lives and unburden their families. In August Hanson told me about two cases in California and Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, in which insurance companies denied general treatment coverage but agreed to cover the suicide drugs.
Second, he argued that the practice would normalize suicide in general—and indeed, suicide rates are on the rise in the United States, and might be one factor behind the recent decline in U.S. life expectancy. Third, he argued that doctors would struggle to find cures for cancers like glioblastoma if patients never tried treatments or entered clinical trials, as he did. The pool of patients who can participate in glioblastoma trials is already very small because those patients often don’t live long.
Third, he described his own low moments during his treatments, when he felt depressed enough that he could imagine taking a fatal drug. Under assisted suicide laws, doctors prescribe fatal drugs to terminal patients, which the patients then take themselves at a time of their choosing. Hanson felt it would be easy to succumb at the nadir of sickness.
Legislators in New York have so far blocked efforts to legalize the practice there, as have lawmakers in several other states over the past two years. Catholic and evangelical lobbyists working against assisted suicide pointed to Hanson as a key figure who made the issue real to legislators.
In the midst of speaking and traveling for his advocacy work, Hanson had a roller coaster of scans and treatments, along with two brain surgeries. When we first met, his cancer was in remission, but he admitted at the time that glioblastoma doesn’t typically remain in remission for long. Around Christmas 2016 Hanson suffered another grand mal seizure, indicating the cancer was back. He had to learn to read again.
When I spoke to Hanson in August, he remained hopeful, and was particularly thrilled about the recent birth of his second son. He kept using the word “joy.”