Dying with Dignity: One Woman’s Journey towards Death Highlights How the World has Answered the Call for Physician-Assisted Death

BY TRACY BURTS – Brittany Maynard has captured the ear – and the heart – of America recently, as word quickly spread across various media outlets about her unusual story. Although she is only 29 years old, Maynard expects that the last few days of this already waning month of October will probably be her last.[1] Her dire prediction is, in part, determined by the fact that on New Year’s Day of this year, she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.[2] However, Maynard’s prediction is also based on the fact that she has chosen to die with dignity.[3]  This controversial option gives her control over when and how she is going to pass on.

As a result of the right to die with dignity legislation in Oregon, Maynard now has in her possession prescription medication that will end her life should she choose to take it.[4] The option to die with dignity, offered in various forms in only four other states—Montana, New Mexico, Vermont, and Washington—is available only to those who are mentally competent, terminally ill patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live.[5]

In order to have access to the death with dignity option, Maynard and her family moved from California to Oregon[6]. Oregon law allows an “an adult who is capable, is a resident of Oregon, and has been determined by the attending physician and consulting physician to be suffering from a terminal disease, and who has voluntarily expressed his or her wish to die, to make a written request for medication for the purpose of ending his or her life….”[7] After the patient makes his or her initial oral and written request to their physician, they must reiterate the oral request again no earlier than 15 days after the initial oral request.[8]

Maynard has emphasized that she does not want to die.[9] Nine days after her diagnosis, she had a partial craniotomy and a partial resection of her temporal lobe in order to slow the spread of her cancer.[10] Unfortunately, the cancer came back more aggressive and her life expectancy dropped to six months.[11] Although she considered other potential treatment options, nothing was going to be able to prolong her life.[12] The best option—full brain radiation—would leave her scalp covered in first-degree burns.[13] Not wanting to diminish the quality of her last few months, Maynard chose to forego any additional treatment.[14]

Maynard’s story has come to light just as Canada’s Supreme Court considers a case that could make assisted death legal on a federal level.[15] This case follows another decision by Quebec to adopt its own law permitting assisted death.[16] Quebec’s legislation will require a physician to administer the medication themselves after having consulted with a second physician and after independent research has determined that the patient has not made the request for assisted death under duress.[17]

Related European laws are significantly less stringent than those found in the United States and Canada, in part because they provide access to assisted death to those who may still be able to live long lives, but are experiencing unbearable suffering in concurrence with a medical condition.[18]

Maynard’s campaign to encourage more states to enact death with dignity laws has reawakened a national conversation about physician-assisted death and the circumstances under which society is prepared to embrace that option. It will be interesting to see going forward how future state legislation regarding this matter will compare to existing legislation implemented around the world.

[1] Brittany Maynard, My Right to Die with Dignity, (Oct. 17, 2014, 9:08 PM), http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/07/opinion/maynard-assisted-suicide-cancer-dignity/index.html.


[2] Id.


[3] Id.


[4] Id.


[5] Death with Dignity Acts, Death with Dignity National Center, (Oct. 17, 2014, 9:21 PM), http://www.deathwithdignity.org/.


[6] http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/07/opinion/maynard-assisted-suicide-cancer-dignity/index.html


[7] OR. REV. STAT. § 127.805 (2014)


[8] OR. REV. STAT. §127.840 (2014)


[9] http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/07/opinion/maynard-assisted-suicide-cancer-dignity/index.html


[10] Id.


[11] Id.


[12] Id.


[13] Id.


[14] Id.


[15] Assisted suicide: Where do Canada and other countries stand?, CBC News, (Oct 13, 2014), http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/assisted-suicide-where-do-canada-and-other-countries-stand-1.2795041.


[16] Id.


[17] Id.


[18] Id. 


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