12 October 2014

A youthful spin on the right-to-die movement

Terminally ill 29-year-old newlywed Brittany Maynard is the new face of the right-to-die movement - a movement previously associated primarily with much older people.

Maynard suffers from a glioblastoma brain tumor - the deadliest form of brain cancer - and her doctors have predicted that she has only a few months to live, at most. So on November 1, Maynard plans to take her own life using medications prescribed by her doctor in accordance with Oregon's Death with Dignity law. Maynard moved from her native California to Oregon in order to take advantage of the law.

To date, only 4 U.S. states - Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington - have legalized physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients, allowing them to die on their own terms. It allows them to choose a quick and dignified death over a painful, lingering one.

Furthermore, Maynard has teamed up with the nonprofit organization Compassion & Choices (formerly known as the Hemlock Society) to launch an online campaign to draw attention to the issue. (Full disclosure: I am a lifetime member of Compassion & Choices.) Hopefully this campaign, and the extensive press coverage it's been receiving, will trigger a new national dialog that will prompt more states to adopt their own Death with Dignity laws.

So-called "pro-life" groups typically oppose physician-assisted suicide. I guess they would prefer that the terminally ill be forced to tolerate the sometimes excruciating pain and suffering that accompany so many terminal conditions. What kind of "life" is that?

And I guess they want the families to suffer, too, as they watch their loved ones die slowly, sometimes over several months or even years, perhaps kept alive artificially with respirators and feeding tubes.

What it boils down to is this: While life is precious and should not be thrown away lightly, modern medical science cannot yet provide adequate pain control in all dying patients, even in the best hospices.

While physicians do take an oath to "do no harm", is it not harmful to force a dying patient to suffer a slow, lingering death against his or her will, perhaps kept alive artificially with respirators and feeding tubes?

When a pet becomes ill to the point where it is near death or suffering uncontrollably, a veterinarian will not think twice before recommending that the pet be euthanized, to put the animal out of its misery.

So why do we treat our dying pets with more mercy than we treat our dying people?


"I didn't launch this campaign because I wanted attention; in fact, it's hard for me to process it all. I did this because I want to see a world where everyone has access to death with dignity, as I have had. My journey is easier because of this choice."
-- Brittany Maynard

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