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The Death Of Brittany Maynard Sparks Debate On “Death With Dignity”

Brittany Maynard and her husband
Brittany Maynard and her husband, Dan Diaz. Courtesy Compassion & Choices on YouTube.

The young woman who moved to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s controversial physician-assisted suicide law ingested a lethal dose of doctor-prescribed barbiturates Sunday, sparking national debate on so-called “death with dignity” legislation.

Brittany Maynard, 29, was diagnosed with an aggressive glioblastoma brain tumor in January and was later given six months to live. Maynard and her husband, Dan Diaz, moved from California because that state does not allow terminally ill adults to end their lives with doctor-prescribed drugs.

“She died as she intended– peacefully in her bedroom, in the arms of her loved ones,” Sean Crowley, a spokesman for advocacy group Compassion & Choices, told The Associated Press. Maynard suffered increasingly frequent and longer seizures, severe head and neck pain, and other stroke-like symptoms, he said.

Working with Compassion & Choices, Maynard used her story to raise awareness about physician-assisted suicide and inspire other terminally ill Americans to end their lives on such terms.

“I don’t wake up every day and look at it, I know it’s in a safe spot,” Maynard said in a Compassion & Choices-produced video about her life-ending drugs. That video has been viewed more than 10 million times on YouTube. “I will pass peacefully with some music I like in the background.”

Gwen Fitzgerald, director of communications with Compassion & Choices, told Life Matters Media she believes younger people can identify with Maynard and learn from her decision.

“The attention has been incredible, very heartwarming that people have listened to what she had to say. People are trying to have a more open mind about her decision,” Fitzgerald said. “We tend to think about people who are dying as older. Obviously, a 29-year-old is a bit more a-typical, thank goodness, but her message is resonating with a broad range of audiences.”

Physician-assisted suicide is legal in four other states: Washington, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico. More than 750 people in Oregon have used the law to die.

Brittany Maynard
Brittany Maynard. Courtesy Compassion & Choices on Youtube.

Both the Oregon Death with Dignity Act (1994) and the Washington statute (2008) set safeguards to protect patients against coercion from physicians or from family members. Each patient must be of sound mind when requesting the prescription and be informed of palliative and hospice care options. Two doctors must confirm a diagnosis of terminal illness with no more than six months of life-expectancy.

Maynard’s decision and influence upset some religious and disability rights groups.

“We are saddened by the fact that this young woman gave up hope, and now our concern is for other people with terminal illnesses who may contemplate following her example,” Janet Morana, executive director of Priests for Life, said in a statement to the AP. “Brittany’s death was not a victory for a political cause. It was a tragedy, hastened by despair and aided by the culture of death invading our country.”

Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care physician, said he believed Maynard was being “exploited” by Compassion & Choices and that palliative medicine could have aided in alleviating her suffering.

“Compassion & Choices actually sold to the public the legalization of physician-assisted suicide because of unremitting pain. But we can control pain,” he said on PBS Newshour. “What’s happening now is that over 85 percent of people who use Oregon’s law and end their life do so because of existential or emotional suffering, feeling of being a burden to their families, feeling the loss of the ability to enjoy life, feeling the loss of meaning.”

Byock, author of  The Best Care Possible, said Maynard could have received “excellent whole person care and be assured of dying gently in her bed surrounded by her family.” Palliative medicine is provided to the terminally and seriously ill to help treat symptoms and side-effects of disease. The goal of palliative care is not cure.

But Craig Klugman, chair of DePaul University’s Department of Health Sciences and a bioethicist, told LMM many terminally ill patients wish to have control over their final days and die only when they feel ready.

“As the Oregon experience has shown, for many patients, assisted suicide is about having a feeling of control– since a large percent of individuals who receive a prescription for their death do not take it,” he said. “The decision is a very personal one that needs to take into account not just the patient but also their family. That this was, controversially, the right decision for Mrs. Maynard does not mean it is the right decision for anyone else.”

Klugman said the assumption of many medical professionals that palliative care and other comfort treatments negate the need for “death with dignity” laws is based in belief that suicide is immoral.

“Sudden, unplanned suicide by healthy people is tragic and leaves survivors with questions and often guilt that they could have or should have done more. But that is not the case here,” he added. “For Mrs. Maynard, even though palliative care could help with her acute symptoms, it could not assist with her existential ones— watching her lose control over her body and mind, the loss of what she felt was her dignity as others had to take on more and more of her daily activities of living, and living with the knowledge that for her, this diminishment was not a life she wanted to experience.”

Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center in Oregon, told LMM the national attention on Maynard’s decision reflects increasing support among Americans for “death with dignity” legislation.

“I am saddened by the tragedy of this young woman’s death, but I am thankful the state of Oregon offered her options at the end of her life,” she said. “When you talk to average Americans, between 60 to 70 percent of people say ‘yes,’ ‘death with dignity’ should be legal. When you have a compelling story, when you show a young family with a member dying, suddenly an issue that has broad support becomes something that everyone is engaged in.”