Maynard was suffering from an advanced and incurable form of brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme. When she got her diagnosis at the beginning of the year, she was told that she had about six months to live. A California native, Maynard decided to relocate to Oregon so she could take advantage of the state’s assisted suicide law, which allows doctors to prescribe lethal medications for terminally ill patients.
About a month ago, Maynard partnered with the advocacy group Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization working to reform Americans’ end-of-life care. She began speaking publicly about the fact that she was planning to die on November 1, and arguing that Americans across the country need more control over their decisions in this area.
In addition to Oregon, there are currently just a few U.S. states — Montana, Vermont, New Mexico, and Washington — that allow terminally ill residents to end their lives with the help of a physician. Oregon’s law, which was passed in 1997, is the oldest.
Although Maynard wasn’t sure whether she would stick with November 1 as the exact date she would end her life, she didn’t waver in her commitment to choose the circumstances of her death. This past weekend, she decided it was time. “Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me… but would have taken so much more,” Maynard wrote on Facebook, as quoted in People Magazine.
According to Compassion & Choices, Maynard’s health was deteriorating immediately before her death. She was dealing with more frequent seizures, severe head and neck pain, and stroke-like symptoms. Accounts from other people who have cared for glioblastoma multiforme patients indicate that it would have only gotten worse; the people with this type of brain tumor typically lose the ability to walk, talk, and use the bathroom.
Pro-life groups, which typically oppose doctor-assisted suicide for many of the same reasons that they oppose abortion, strongly disagreed with Maynard’s decision, condemning her as a pawn in the death with dignity movement. Some advocates wrote her letters hoping to change her mind. After the news of Maynard’s passing, religious groups expressed disappointment. “We are saddened by the fact that this young woman gave up hope, and now our concern is for other people with terminal illnesses who may contemplate following her example,” Janet Morana, the executive director of Priests for Life, said in a statement.
The issue of physician-assisted suicide has long been controversial among both doctors and the public, although it typically depends a lot 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 death-with-dignity laws increases by nearly 20 percentage points.
Under Oregon’s law, as with most death-with-dignity policies, it is illegal for the doctor to administer a lethal dose of medication. Physicians may prescribe life-ending drugs to a terminally ill patient who is determined to be of sound mind, and then the patient chooses when they want to swallow those pills. According to the state’s records, more than 750 people in Oregon used the law to end their lives between 1997 and 2013.