Death with dignity: Young patient with brain tumor puts a face on the right-to-die movement

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When 29-year-old Brittany Maynard appeared on the October 27, 2014 cover of People magazine announcing that she planned to end her life before she fell victim to aggressive glioblastoma, she drew new attention to the right to- die movement.

“Her youth appealed to a whole other generation that has not given a second thought to what they might die of or how that death might play out,” says Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, an advocacy organization that supports right-to-die legislation and patients’ rights to make end-of-life choices. “She said, ‘I will rob cancer of the ability to take everything of me before it takes my life.’”

Learning that surgery had not stopped her aggressive brain tumor and that her severe decline and eventual death were inevitable, Maynard moved with her husband and mother to Oregon, which was the first state to pass a Death with Dignity Act (DWDA; also known as physician aid-in-dying) in 1997. The law allows terminally ill patients to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose. In addition to applying for and obtaining the medication, Maynard contacted Compassion & Choices and told them she wanted to become an advocate for the organization, launching an online video campaign and doing the interview with People. On November 1, 2014 she ended her life, issuing a public goodbye on Facebook.

Since Maynard went public with her choice, inquiries to the organization from both activists and terminally ill patients have increased 10-fold, according to Coombs Lee, an attorney and former nurse who coauthored Oregon’s Death with Dignity bill. She also points to a recent HealthDay Harris Poll, conducted shortly after Maynard’s death, which found that 74% of American adults believe that patients who are terminally ill and in great pain have the right to end their lives, whereas 14% percent were opposed. “One of the enormous benefits of Brittany’s story is that people are talking about the issue who never would have talked about it before,” she says.

Nevertheless, there is strong opposition to the right-todie movement, including among both religious and disability rights organizations. The latter cite concerns about potential abuse of vulnerable populations. Medical providers also worry about risks to the medical profession and the patient-physician relationship. In fact, several physicians in states without rightto- die laws chose not to be interviewed about the topic when contacted by CancerScope. Even the name of the practice can be hotly debated, ranging from “assisted suicide” in opposition circles to “death with dignity” among supporters.

However, Coombs Lee maintains that these concerns have not been borne out in Oregon. “Twenty years of experience in Oregon has shown that physicians can participate in aid in dying and that it can be compatible with their practices,” she says.

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