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Bioethics Forum Essay

How Brittany Maynard Changed the Conversation about Aid in Dying

Brittany Maynard, the courageous 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer, ended her life a month ago today. She and her husband had moved to Oregon so that Maynard could take advantage of that’s state’s Death with Dignity law. Although Maynard fit squarely into Oregon’s criteria and her death was not controversial, it did change the conversation about assisted suicide in two important ways.

First, Brittany Maynard was young and media savvy. She chose to use the last precious time and energy available to her, and to sacrifice her privacy, in order to campaign to increase the number of states where assisted suicide is legal.  (It is legal by law in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont and by court rulings in Montana and New Mexico.). For a few weeks before and after her death, her name and face were everywhere. She and her husband posted videos on the Internet explaining her decision, and inviting viewers into their lives. I am currently teaching a freshman college seminar, and my students were simply mesmerized.  What had been a policy they thought was just relevant to old people, was suddenly captured in this fresh-faced woman not yet 30.

Second, Maynard was clearly making what she considered the best choice for her, given her tragic circumstances.  A frequent argument against the legalization of assistance in dying is that it will work against the marginalized and vulnerable. It will be too easy for society to accept the death of the old, the poor, and the isolated, rather than providing them with the support and services that would make their final days, weeks, and months worthwhile. We hear this argument from feminist critics such as Susan Wolf and Rosemary Tong, who worry that women are more likely to die alone and impoverished, and have been socialized to think of themselves as caregivers to others, not as worthy recipients of care.  We heard it from the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law in its recommendation against legalizing assisting suicide in that state.

The Task Force wrote in 1994 that the “risks” of legalization “would be most severe for those whose autonomy and well-being are already compromised by poverty, lack of access to good medical care, or membership in a stigmatized social group. The risks of legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia for these individuals, in a health care system and society that cannot effectively protect against the impact of inadequate resources and ingrained social disadvantage, are likely to be extraordinary.”

Are these concerns well grounded? Oregon’s law requires careful records to be kept. In 2013, 71 people in the state used the law to end their lives. Ninety-four percent of these people were white, over half were college educated, most were enrolled in hospice, and virtually all had some form of health insurance. There were twice as many men as women, and only one was under 45. Except for her age, therefore, Brittany was a fairly typical user of the law: a well-educated, thoughtful, middle-class woman with a loving and supportive family who was driven to her decision by only one thing: a cancer that could not be controlled with even the best medical care available. By becoming the new face of the death-with-dignity movement, she has done much to refute those misplaced objections.

Dena S Davis, JD, PhD, is the Presidential Endowed Chair in Health and a professor of religion studies at Lehigh University.

Posted by Susan Gilbert at 12/01/2014 12:57:59 PM |

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