A 29-year-old woman who has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of terminal brain cancer is using the last weeks of her life to advocate for expanding Americans’ access to doctor-assisted suicide. Brittany Maynard says she wants patients across the country to have more control over decisions related to their end-of-life care.
Maynard was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a particularly aggressive type of brain cancer for which there is no cure. People with this diagnosis typically have between three months and two years to live; Maynard’s doctors told her that she probably had about six months left. She decided that she wanted the option to end her life before succumbing to her tumor.
Maynard, who is a California native, relocated to Portland so she could take advantage of Oregon’s laws in this area. There, she was able to obtain a prescription for a lethal medication that she can choose to take when she’s ready.
“I don’t wake up every day and look at it. It’s in a safe spot, and I know it will be there if I need it,” Maynard explains in a video she made about her situation to launch her new advocacy campaign. “I can’t even tell you the amount of relief it provides me to know that I don’t have to die the way it’s been described to me that my brain tumor would take me on its own.”
The issue of doctor-assisted suicide has long been controversial among both medical professionals and the public. In addition to Oregon, there are currently just a few U.S. states — Montana, Vermont, New Mexico, and Washington — that allow terminally ill patients to end their lives with the help of a physician. Proponents of the practice, who typically frame it as “death with dignity,” have unsuccessfully attempted to legalize it in other states like Massachusetts and Maine in recent years.
For her new campaign, Maynard is partnering with Compassion & Choices, one of the biggest organizations pushing to reform Americans’ end-of-life care. In addition to advocating for eliminating unnecessary and expensive medical treatment that elderly patients may not want, the group is currently campaigning for “right to die” legislation in California, Colorado, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
Although Maynard was able to move to Oregon, the leaders of Compassion & Choice point out that’s not an option for every American struggling with end-of-life decisions. “Most people do not have the flexibility, resources and time to uproot their family, establish residency in a death-with-dignity jurisdiction and gain the option to die on their own terms,” Barbara Coombs Lee, the group’s president, said in a statement about Maynard’s new initiative.
There is some evidence that the people will travel to places that have legalized physician-assisted suicide if they have the means to do so. A recent study found that the number of people visiting Switzerland to take advantage of its permissive law in this area has doubled over the past four years.
Most Americans do believe that terminally ill patients should be able to seek assistance from a doctor to die, but support for the issue is particularly dependent on the language used to describe it. When it’s framed in terms of a doctor helping “to end the patient’s life by some painless means” — rather than in terms of “suicide” — public support for these policies increases by nearly 20 percentage points.
“I will die upstairs, in the bedroom I share with my husband, with my mother and my husband by my side,” Maynard says in her video.
In August, an 85-year-old Canadian woman in the early stages of dementia made headlines by choosing to end her own life before her symptoms progressed, and documenting her family’s decision making process on her blog. Like Maynard, she said her dying wish was to get people talking about the topic of death with dignity, which is often considered to be too taboo.