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One Activist's Legacy

Brittany Maynard spent only a few weeks advocating death-with-dignity laws, but she may be remembered as a giant of the movement.
PUBLISHED June 19, 2015
Brittany Maynard spent only a few weeks advocating death-with-dignity laws, but she may be remembered as a giant of the movement.

Doctors diagnosed the 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer last spring and told her to expect a long and agonizing decline. Maynard decided to enjoy as much of her remaining time as possible and then end her life when the pain became unbearable.

State law forbade Maynard’s doctors in California from aiding her plan by prescribing her a fatal dose of barbiturates, so Maynard and her husband moved to Oregon, where doctors can give such prescriptions to mentally competent patients who have fewer than six months to live.

Maynard’s case captured the nation’s attention after she worked with a group called Compassion & Choices to make a video that explained her decisions and why she feels people everywhere should have the same rights she had in Oregon.

The video reached millions of viewers online and generated media coverage that reached millions more.

Maynard ended her own life on November 1, just a few weeks after her first video went viral, but her efforts have generated unprecedented momentum for the cause she supported.

“Brittany’s voice hasn’t just brought new people to the movement, it has brought a new generation to the movement,” says Daniel R. Wilson, national and federal programs director for Compassion & Choices. “People in their 20s and 30s didn’t spend much time thinking about this topic until she came around and showed them that this issue impacts us all.”

Since Brittany Maynard and her family launched their partnership with Compassion & Choices in October 2015 to advocate for death-with-dignity laws in every state, the number of people volunteering for the organization jumped from nearly 1,200 in September 2014 to over 2,600 in April 2015, and continues to grow at an average rate of 15 percent a month.

Compassion & Choices has also seen dramatic progress toward its goals in state legislatures.

The New Jersey state assembly passed a death-with-dignity bill 12 days after Maynard’s death, under which patients expected by doctors to live six months or less can ask their physicians to prescribe life-ending medicines that they can use when they feel the time is right.

In 2014, death-with-dignity bills were also introduced in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania; Massachusetts had introduced a bill in 2013.

This year, bills have been introduced in the District of Columbia and at least 23 states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Utah.

Many of those bills are still pending, and they are likely to face a tough fight. The American Medical Association opposes any law that allows physicians to help patients kill themselves, as do the Catholic Church and many other religious groups.

In the five states that allow doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to patients — Oregon, Washington, Montana, New Mexico and Vermont — a significant majority of the patients who ask for such help have terminal cancer, just like Maynard.

Nevertheless, many groups that advocate for the rights of cancer patients oppose such laws. The American Cancer Society, for example, says, “Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are contrary to the ethical traditions of medicine and threaten the moral integrity of health care professionals.”

Brittany Maynard’s efforts may not carry the day for the movement she supported, but they have certainly brought its arguments into the arena of public debate.
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