Woman's death galvanises US right-to-die efforts

2014-11-04 09:01
Brittany Maynard. (Maynard family, AP)

Brittany Maynard. (Maynard family, AP)

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Portland - Brittany Maynard's last days stirred a debate in the US about whether it's OK for a terminally ill person to end their own life.

Now that the young woman has died, it's time to see whether the millions of clicks and views she generated online trigger more than just talk.

Maynard, terminally ill with brain cancer, was in the national spotlight for about a month after publicising that she and her husband, Dan Diaz, moved to Oregon from California so that she could use the Oregon law to end her life on her own terms. Maynard told journalists she planned to die on 1 November, and followed through on Saturday. She was 29.

Advocates for expanding right-to-die laws beyond a handful of US states expect attention from the young woman's story to carry into the new year, when state legislatures go into session.

"Up and down New England, the East Coast, and then in the West, too," said Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center. "I think on both coasts we're going to see legislative action."

Life-ending drug

That optimism, however, will be met with the political reality that such legislation has been pushed for years, often unsuccessfully.

"Suicide is never a good solution, regardless of the situation that one is confronting," said Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, a Catholic group.

Maynard approached the advocacy group Compassion & Choices during the summer in hopes that telling her story would lead to political action in California and across the nation. Whether that happens is an open question.

Maynard, however, succeeded in raising awareness about an issue that was trending on Facebook and Twitter after her death. Her fund's website has been visited more than 4 million times, including from such far-flung places as Tajikistan, Iceland, Syria and Burkina Faso.

"Younger people support death with dignity at really high levels, but it's not necessarily relevant or salient to their lives," Sandeen said. "I think the Brittany Maynard story makes it real."

Oregon was the first U.S. state to make it legal for a doctor to prescribe a life-ending drug to a terminally ill patient. Through June 30, just over 800 people had used the law since it took effect shortly after the November 1997 election.

Legislative change

Those who take the drug typically fall asleep shortly and die within a half-hour.

Vermont last year became the first state to legalise aid in dying through legislation — Oregon and Washington did so by referendum; in Montana and New Mexico, it was effectively legalised through court decisions.

In New Jersey, the state Assembly considered but failed to pass an aid-in-dying bill in June. Democratic Assemblyman John Burzichelli, who authored the bill, said he is hopeful it can pass the state's lower chamber before the end of the year. If that happens, he expects the Senate to pass it soon after, he said.

"It's very clear to me that the majority voice in New Jersey want another choice," Burzichelli said.

Republican Governor Chris Christie has said he opposes the measure.

Compassion & Choice is spending about $7m a year to protect the practice in states where it has been authorized and passing legislation in states where it has not, said Mickey MacIntyre, the group's chief program officer.

The group said its website has had more than five million unique visitors over the past month. Maynard's two videos, meanwhile, have been viewed more than 13 million times on YouTube alone.

"The incredible number of people who have been inspired by Brittany's story, we hope to translate that into action in moving toward legislative change in this coming session," MacIntyre said.

Of course, not everyone who viewed the videos is a fan. Social conservatives have sharply criticized Maynard's decision, and it's unlikely any Republican-controlled legislatures will be considering right-to-die laws.

Maynard's relatives asked for privacy Monday and have not released information about funeral arrangements. A spokesman for Compassion & Choices said she died peacefully, surrounded by family and friends in the bedroom of her Portland home.

Read more on:    brittany maynard  |  us

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