Death with Dignity

On Nov. 2, 2014, a heartbeat ceased counting out the rhythm of a life that’d begun 29 years earlier. Along with her husband and parents, Brittany Maynard searched her conscience, consulted with the oncologist treating an end-stage glioblastoma, and decided to end her physical and emotional suffering under the physician’s supervision. She expressed her wishes in a video that’s garnered more than 10 million views so far. Maynard died in her bedroom with her husband, parents, and friend at her side.

Brittany Maynard’s Journey

At the time of her diagnosis, Maynard and her husband, with whom she was planning to start a family, lived in California. In order to access the Death with Dignity Act, they moved to Oregon, one of five states that allow physician-assisted end of life. Washington and Vermont also have Death with Dignity laws, while courts in New Mexico and Montana have ruled in favor of the principle.

The process isn’t simple: In the three states with such laws, patients who request medically supervised termination need to have an end-stage illness that will lead to death within six months. The patient must make two verbal requests, 15 days apart, then a written request before a physician can prescribe a lethal medication. The patient must see two doctors: the attending physician, with whom he or she puts in the petition, and a consulting physician, who must confirm the diagnosis and the patient’s ability to communicate health care decisions.

The journey that’s sparked heated discussion about the meaning of Death with Dignity began shortly after Maynard’s wedding, when she learned she had an inoperable brain tumor. She was given a six-month life expectancy.

Maynard learned the pain she would endure would be unbearable at times and her quality of life severely impaired. She said she didn’t want to die, but she preferred to spare herself and her loved ones what she perceived could be a horrific ending. Among bouts of pain, loss of balance, and exhaustion, she crossed items off her bucket list, including traveling with her family to the Grand Canyon.

Controversy over Death with Dignity

At the heart of the debate is this question: Is physician-assisted death suicide?

Some of the controversy around Maynard’s decision is rooted in religious doctrine that considers death by one’s own hand to be suicide. The belief that suffering has a spiritually redemptive quality puts Maynard’s actions in conflict with the teachings of many denominations.

A Pew Research Center poll last year found 62 percent of adults believe “a person has a moral right to end their own life if they are suffering great pain and have no hope of improvement.” Support’s higher among younger people. For example, 65 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 49 said people have this moral right, compared with 54 percent of respondents 75 and older, according to the poll.

These kinds of deaths don’t have the same attributes as suicide, according to a blog post on the Death with Dignity National Center website. The decision isn’t a reaction to depression or other forms of mental illness, nor is it an impulsive act. It’s a response to a terminal illness that cannot be eased by medical intervention. Like Ethan Remmel, PhD, a developmental psychologist who died of end-stage cancer in 2011 under Washington’s Death with Dignity Act, Maynard stated publically that having the pills at her disposal wasn’t a guarantee she’d use them. In the end, she exercised her freedom to release herself from the struggle against an unbeatable enemy.

There is still hope.

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