The two videos in which Brittany Maynard explained her decision to end her life under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act put a human face — and a very young one — on a sometimes abstract debate.
Viewers saw her walking in the woods with her husband. There were glimpses of the small purse that held bottles of legally prescribed barbiturates and the sunny bedroom where she intended to take a lethal dose. They heard her mother tearfully support her decision.
As mournful piano music played, they heard Ms. Maynard, 29, express relief that she would be able to die peacefully, when she chose, rather than wait for an aggressive brain tumor to kill her.
And they heard her offer hope that her story could influence the nation’s end-of-life discussion. She had moved from California, where physicians cannot legally prescribe drugs to end the lives of patients, to a state where terminally ill patients have had that option since 1998. “I would like all Americans to have access to the same health care rights,” she said.
Advocates say that Ms. Maynard, who ended her life on Saturday, has indeed advanced that cause. The two videos — shot for Compassion and Choices, a national organization supporting legal aid in dying, and released in early October and then last week — have drawn more than 13 million views on YouTube.
Ms. Maynard appeared on the cover of People magazine and on CBS’s morning and evening news programs, and made headlines internationally. More than five million people visited her page on the Compassion and Choices website; 400,000 signed an online card. On Sunday, as news of her death spread, the website drew 240,000 visits an hour, the organization said.
“Our phones are ringing, ringing, ringing,” said Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center in Portland, Ore. “We see people having conversations around dinner tables or with friends at work, and this time we see those conversations among young people.”
In Compassion and Choice’s 30-year history, “Nothing has touched as many people as Brittany’s story and changed the dialogue around death with dignity the way this has,” said Mickey MacIntyre, the group’s chief program officer. “We saw people running for office put this story on their Facebook pages or talk about it when they were campaigning, which isn’t usually the case.”
Action to allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication for dying patients has spread, slowly, to five states. Oregon in 1997 and Washington in 2008 approved it by referendum. Oregon’s law was upheld by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2006. In 2013, after a decade-long effort, Vermont became the first state to legalize aid in dying legislatively. Court decisions have made it legal in Montana, where legislators twice voted not to re-criminalize it, and in New Mexico, where the state attorney general has appealed the ruling.
But the effort has met with notable defeats as well. In 2012 early polls showed majority support for a Massachusetts referendum; after opponents, primarily Roman Catholic organizations, spent close to $5 million, the referendum lost by a narrow margin.
This year, legislatures in Massachusetts and Connecticut held hearings about aid in dying but took no action, and a bill legalizing it was trounced in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. A New Jersey assemblyman believes he has the votes to pass a law in both legislative houses this session — but if he succeeds, Gov. Chris Christie has said he won’t sign it.
Will even the well-publicized case of an articulate young woman with a terrible disease lead to political change?
Public opinion remains divided, as a Pew Research poll last year demonstrated. Two-thirds of Americans agree there are situations in which patients should be allowed to die, and a growing proportion — 62 percent — believe a person has “a moral right” to suicide when “suffering great pain with no hope of improvement,” up from 55 percent in 1990.
But respondents were less certain about laws to allow “doctor-assisted suicide” for the terminally, ill, with 49 percent disapproving and 47 percent approving.
“You’ll have to see how state legislators and voters react,” said Joe Baerlein, whose public relations firm marshaled the opposition to the Massachusetts referendum. “It’s a very raw situation right now. You don’t think in terms of politics. You think of sympathy for a family.”
Appearing to exploit her experience could backfire, he warned.
Moreover, however sympathetic to Ms. Maynard and her family, opponents of what they call “physician-assisted suicide” will hardly evaporate. The American Medical Association and its state affiliates still regularly fight legalization attempts (though the American Public Health Association supports them), along with Catholic archdioceses and some Protestant evangelicals and disability groups. A Vatican official condemned Ms. Maynard’s act as “reprehensible.”
But Compassion and Choices says the landscape may be shifting. Legislators in Colorado, California, Nevada and New Hampshire have contacted the organization, Mr. MacIntyre said. In Pennsylvania, an aid-in-dying bill was pending in the State Senate; a Statehouse companion was suddenly introduced as well. Editorial columns last month in The Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee called for California to revive aid-in-dying legislation.
Kathryn Tucker, the former legal director for Compassion and Choices and a lawyer representing aid-in-dying plaintiffs in New Mexico, predicted that doctors and patients would also bring suits in several other states and that Ms. Maynard’s story would have impact. “It galvanizes public opinion, which can change how legislators see the issue,” she said. “I think it influences courts, too.”
Of course, most people who avail themselves of lethal medication from doctors, even where that’s legal, are not like Brittany Maynard. In Oregon, which keeps careful records on the 1,173 “participants” who received prescriptions from 1998 through last year and the 752 who used the medication to die, a majority (69 percent) are over age 65.
But youth — Ms. Maynard said farewell via Facebook — was part of what made this public crusade so gripping. “When you add a face, a compelling face, an interesting story, a young family, people get much more engaged,” Ms. Sandeen said. “I think we’ll see vocal groups working to push this forward.”Tags: assisted suicide, Brittany Maynard, Oregon