On November 1, 2014, a young woman named Brittany Maynard died in the comfort of her home, surrounded by loved ones. Earlier that year, Maynard learned that she had an aggressive form of brain cancer that left her with only six months to live.
The cancer never got a chance to claim Brittany’s life. Maynard induced her own death, taking a prescription she received from a doctor, which allowed her to pass away on her own terms.
Maynard’s desire to avoid the degenerative effects of her disease, and die peacefully, re-ignited America’s debate on physician-assisted suicide. Her story captivated the nation, finding its way into major news broadcasts and forcing Americans to confront an uncomfortable topic.
Physician-assisted suicide, or “aid in dying,” is currently legal in only Oregon, Washington and Vermont. Court decisions in New Mexico and Montana have also set precedents that allow for the practice. Outside of these five states, terminally ill individuals do not have the option to safely end their own life.
Resistance to death with dignity laws often stems from the United States’ controversial history with the practice. The right to die movement first gained national attention in the 90’s, when Dr. Jacob “Jack” Kevorkian became known in the media as “Doctor Death.”
Between 1990 and 1998, Kevorkian assisted in the deaths of over 100 consenting patients. The doctor lost his medical license in 1991, and eventually served time in prison for his illegal possession and administration of lethal injections.
Physicians and psychiatrists criticize Jack Kevorkian as reckless and unprofessional. Many of the doctor’s clients were not physically suffering or psychologically sound. Kevorkian often moved quickly, administering injections after a brief consultation on the day he met a client.
Kevorkian’s irresponsible actions served as a detriment to the movement he supported. The negative media attention impacted public perception, causing widespread rejection of the practice. A generation of adults now equates the right to die movement with Kevorkian’s dangerous methods.
The actual state of death with dignity laws starkly contrasts this perception. The Oregon law that allowed Brittany Maynard’s peaceful passing offers a clear example.
Oregon.gov makes the state’s Death with Dignity Act accessible in its entirety. The law sets out a stringent set of guidelines for patients hoping to access the service.
First, the patient must receive a diagnosis that leaves them with six or less months to live. After reviewing other options, the physician who administers the diagnosis must agree that the patient is a suitable candidate. If the doctor has any doubt that the person suffers from mental illness, the law requires them to refer the individual to a counselor for psychiatric analysis.
If they pass through these stages, the patient must then seek out a second physician to repeat the process. If the second doctor agrees with the previous diagnosis and assessment, the patient becomes eligible for the prescription. They must wait 15 days, and apply for the prescription again, before they can actually receive it.
The Oregon law takes great lengths to avoid incorrect diagnoses, rushed decisions or aid in dying for those who aren’t suffering physically. The act has carefully allowed more than 750 suffering patients to decide their terms of death, while directing inappropriate candidates to psychiatric care.
Stringent guidelines can assure that death with dignity laws do not resemble the reckless practice of Jack Kevorkian. This may put some dissenters at ease, but other opponents cite religious or moral reasons to reject physician-assisted suicide.
The Catholic Church condemned the practice almost immediately after Brittany Maynard’s death. In a statement to the Italian news agency ANSA, the Vatican’s top ethicist called assisted suicide an “absurdity.”
The Vatican’s official position states that suicide violates divine law and interferes with the work of God. Many religions take similar positions, stating that humans do not have a role in determining their terms of existence.
Despite these protests, recent ideological trends suggest that Americans no longer support religious intervention in social policy. A Gallup poll published in May indicates that the number of Americans who consider themselves socially conservative trends downward over the last ten years.
Gallup reports that gay marriage, which also faces opposition by religions, now receives support from 55% of Americans. More significantly, 78% of 18 to 29 year-olds support the practice.
As this younger generation raises their own children, social attitudes will likely continue their shift away from religious conservatism. In an interview with PBS Newshour, Dr. Arthur Caplan suggests that this secular attitude will influence future debate over aid in dying.
Caplan, who serves as head of medical ethics at NYU, says, “we may see the same folks who got tied up in trying to broaden marriage laws, and trying to see homosexuality gain wider acceptance, move to say this is a choice I want too.”
Religious Americans have every right to reject physician-assisted suicide on a personal level. But young citizens are less and less likely to think that religious beliefs should influence public policy. A suffering patient, who makes the personal decision to seek aid in dying, should not be denied relief by another person’s antiquated belief system.
With moral and procedural concerns addressed, widespread legalization of physician-assisted suicide appears logically sound. In publicizing her story, Brittany Maynard hoped to start this difficult national process.
Shortly before her death, Maynard published a letter with CNN. “I hope for the sake of my fellow American citizens […] that this option is available to you,” she wrote. “If you ever find yourself walking a mile in my shoes, I hope that you would at least be given the same choice, and that no one tries to take it from you.”
Maynard leaves the public with a call to action, and the start of an uncomfortable conversation. We all have a duty to continue the dialogue.
Matthew Meyer encourages you to research the story of Maynard and others like her.
Gallup Polls Cited: