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Brittany Maynard’s Decision to Die with Dignity

October 7, 2014

A young woman named Brittany Maynard, like so many others, has a compelling story to share. She is bravely facing her death with dignity and control, and when the time is right, she may choose to hasten her own death.

In Oregon, Death with Dignity has been legal for 20 years. The Oregon Death with Dignity Act allows mentally competent, terminally ill adults with six months or fewer to live the right to request medication to hasten their deaths. Once a person completes the request process and receives the prescribed medication, it’s fully in the patient’s hands to decide whether or when to take the medication, and about a third of the people who request the prescribed medication never take it.

Brittany’s Story

Our hearts go out to Brittany and her family. She and her husband were trying for a family when the news came. After suffering from crippling headaches for months, she learned she had brain cancer in January, 2014. Hardly a year after getting married and 29 years old, her life was turned upside down in a moment.

Shortly after the diagnosis, she underwent procedures to stop the growth of the tumor, but in April, the news took a turn for the worse. Not only had the tumor come back, but it was growing faster than ever. She was given a prognosis of six months or fewer to live.

After extensive research and talking with her family, Brittany came to the difficult conclusion: debilitating treatments wouldn’t save her life and she wanted to enjoy the time she had left with her loved ones. In her own words in an interview with CNN, “I considered passing away in hospice care at my San Francisco Bay-area home. But even with palliative medication, I could develop potentially morphine-resistant pain and suffer personality changes and verbal, cognitive and motor loss of virtually any kind.”

Having this choice at the end of my life has become incredibly important. It has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain.

—Brittany Maynard

She wanted more control over her final days. She and her family decided to move and establish residency in Oregon so she would have the options allowed under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. In the same interview on CNN, she described the peace of mind she has now she’s completed the request process for the prescribed medication:

“Now that I’ve had the prescription filled and it’s in my possession, I have experienced a tremendous sense of relief. And if I decide to change my mind about taking the medication, I will not take it. Having this choice at the end of my life has become incredibly important. It has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain.”

Momentum for Reform

Brittany’s vision for her final days are echoed by people who contact the National Center every day from every corner of the country. Sadly, policy reform around end-of-life options won’t come soon enough to help the vast majority of people who call and email us. As heartbreaking as these conversations are, they make me even more passionate about this cause. No question, all people should have the right to control their own fate when facing death.

This will be a long journey; our opponents are well funded and scare people with fictional fears which haven’t born fruit in the many years Death with Dignity has been in effect. Encouragingly, attitudes around Death with Dignity are changing as more people learn the facts about these laws. As our board member George Eighmey said in an interview with Yahoo News:

The more educated people become, the less fear they have about it and the less stigma it carries. No one is pressured into using this law; in fact, very few people do. What’s important is that the choice is available to anyone who qualifies.

No one should have to move to a different state in order to have more end-of-life options. Since our founding in 1993, the Death with Dignity National Center has been advocating for and defending our model legislation, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, and setting the tone and tenor for the national Death with Dignity movement. We were the first national partners to work for policy reform in Washington state which resulted in the Washington Death with Dignity Act, and we were the first national partners in Vermont which eventually resulting in the third death with dignity law in the US enacted last year. Momentum is building throughout the US for more states to embrace Death with Dignity policy reform and this momentum is accelerating at a faster rate than ever.

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Afterword: Physician-Assisted Dying Concepts

The Death with Dignity Procedure Offers Layers of Patient Protections

In all four states where Death with Dignity laws have been adopted, safeguards have been put in place to protect patients throughout the process. From the eligibility requirements that must be verified by two physicians, to the oral and written requests, to the waiting periods and the requirement that the patient be capable of self-administering the medication, all four laws work to prevent coercion from anyone who might benefit from the patient’s death. These safeguards have worked; thus far, no evidence of coercion has surfaced in Death with Dignity Washington or Oregon, for example, after years of the law being in effect.