The Response to Brittany Maynard

By Lauren Taylor

29-year old Brittany Maynard has captured national headlines this week by publicly announcing her intention to end her own life on November 1st. She did so in an effort to raise funds for and awareness of the non-profit Compassion and Choices.

Maynard was diagnosed earlier this year with an aggressive brain cancer and has moved to Oregon for access to its death with dignity laws. Those laws have allowed her to be prescribed a fatal dose of medication by a physician to be taken at the time and place of her choosing. Maynard sees the prescription as a means of avoiding a potentially long, painful and de-humanizing decline in her health.

In light of Maynard’s case, virtually every major media outlet has featured a bit of medical ethics this week. Maynard’s own voice first appeared in People Magazine, announcing her intention to end her own life.  Therein, Maynard is clear that she does not consider herself to be planning for suicide. 

“There is not a cell in my body that is suicidal or that wants to die… I want to live. I wish there was a cure for my disease but there’s not.”

Maynard defends the ethics of her plan by suggesting that it allows her to maintain her autonomy when her disease might otherwise deny her of it.

“…what makes [my decision] ethical is it is a choice. The patient can change their mind right up to the last minute. I feel very protected here in Oregon.”

For me, the most substantial commentaries on Maynard’s case have thus far come from Harold Pollack and Meghan Daum. Daum, a columnist for the LA Times, describes Maynard’s case as one of domestic medical tourism – having moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of the latter’s Death with Dignity law passed in 1997. (Only 4 other states, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico would have afforded Maynard similar rights.  Massachusetts voters narrowly rejected a ballot initiative in 2012 that would have made assisted suicide legal here.)

Despite critics’ fears that such a law would devalue life by opening the suicide floodgates, the number of terminally ill Oregonians that have sought prescriptions’ to end their lives has never been very large. In all, 1,173 Oregonians have been prescribed lethal doses of medication and only 752 of those are believed to have ultimately used them to end their lives. According to Draum, only 12 of those 752 individuals have been under the age of 35 like Maynard.

Pollack, a health and social services researcher, suggests Maynard’s decision reflects the lack of “proper palliative care” in the mainstream health system.  With a characteristic eye towards reform, he urges:

“We can do a better job of relieving people’s symptoms and protecting them from pain… We can work more effectively to ensure that every patient can make the most of their remaining days. We can more effectively promise that someone will die with dignity without the need to take precipitous measures while they still believe they can.”

A brief search of Twitter suggests that many Americans stand with Pollack and Daum in offering generally sympathetic if not outright supportive views of Maynard’s decision. One user asked others if this would be the story to decisively shift public opinion on physician-assisted suicide, but exactly where public opinion stands at the moment can be tough to gauge. In 2013, Gallup asked

“…whether the doctor of a patient with an incurable disease should be allowed “to assist the patient to commit suicide” at the patient’s request, 51 percent of Americans said it should be permitted. However, when the question was rephrased to ask if the doctor should be allowed “to end the patient’s life by some painless means” at the patient and their family’s request, support shot up to 70 percent.”

Of course, the Maynard case has also drawn some detractors, notably from the religious individuals who see the timing of death as God’s domain. The response offered by Kara Tippett, another young woman dying of cancer, exemplifies this kind of objection on theological grounds.

Given the range of issues at play, Bill of Health seems an ideal place to discuss these issues in an collegial and informed manner. So, which piece do you most agree with? What’s been left out of this most recent “press blip”? Has the Maynard case changed your thinking at all?

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

2 thoughts to “The Response to Brittany Maynard”

  1. Better than average – exception being false claim about New Mexico and exaggerated one about Montana. In New Mexico, a lower court ruled in favor of legalization, but there it’s been appealed to the NM supreme court – any statute, etc. is on hold until there is a ruling from that court. While Montana’s SC did rule that doctors could use consent as a defense against homicide, there is no specific legislation that spells out physicans’ guarantees from criminal prosecution and civil liability, so to say any kind lf legal assisted suicide is going on there to any great degree is a stretch.

    The misinformation is widespread – not to pick on this particular article. Compassion and Choices is spreading the misinformation and no reporter or media bioethicist seems inclined to call them on it.

  2. Better than average – exception being false claim about New Mexico and exaggerated one about Montana. In New Mexico, a lower court ruled in favor of legalization, but there it’s been appealed to the NM supreme court – any statute, etc. is on hold until there is a ruling from that court. While Montana’s SC did rule that doctors could use consent as a defense against homicide, there is no specific legislation that spells out physicans’ guarantees from criminal prosecution and civil liability, so to say any kind lf legal assisted suicide is going on there to any great degree is a stretch.

    The misinformation is widespread – not to pick on this particular article. Compassion and Choices is spreading the misinformation and no reporter or media bioethicist seems inclined to call them on it.

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