Increased Attention to “Death with Dignity” after Brittany Maynard’s Death

In light of the recent death of Brittany Maynard, much attention has been directed toward Death with Dignity laws. Brittany Maynard was diagnosed in January with an aggressive terminal brain cancer, and doctors give her six more months to live. She was living in California at the time and decided to move to Oregon take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity Act. She then became a vocal advocate for Death with Dignity laws and utilized social media to share her story with the world.

More than 20 years ago, Oregon voters passed the first Death with Dignity policy reform proposal. The act permits capable Oregon adult residents to make a written request for medication for the purpose of ending his or her life in a humane and dignified manner. The statute requires that an attending physician and consulting physician determine that the adult is suffering from a terminal disease and that the adult had voluntarily expressed his or her wish to die. In reviewing 15 years of data from Oregon, about 44 people each year have taken advantage of the Death with Dignity law.

Since then, Washington and Vermont have also developed Death with Dignity laws that allow mentally competent, terminally-ill adult state residents to voluntarily request and receive prescription medication to hasten their death.

The Death with Dignity Laws remain controversial, with the “battles” taking place in the courts and the State Legislatures. For in December 2009, the Montana Supreme Court ruled end-of-life care is not prohibited by state law. Four years later, a bill was introduced to Montana legislature regarding Death with Dignity, but it got stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which tabled the bill.

Those who support Death with Dignity laws believe that a competent, terminally ill adult, with a prognosis of six months or less to live should be allowed to die with “dignity”and avoid a painful and difficult death. There have been two notable polls that suggest that the majority of adults in the United States support Death with Dignity for terminally ill patients. In 2011, a Harris poll that surveyed over 25,000 adults revealed that 70% of those in the survey agreed that people who are terminally ill, in great pain, and who have no chance of recovery should have the right to choose to end their lives. Likewise, in 2014, a Gallup poll revealed interesting results depending on how the question was posed. 58% of Americans support “physician-assisted suicide” while 69% of Americans believe “doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life by some painless means.”

While polls suggest that 70% of Americans support the concept of Death with Dignity laws, the majority of states have not enacted such laws because of legal complexities and religious, ethical and moral objections. The Catholic Church in particular has expressly stated its opposition to physician-assisted suicide. Furthermore, there are fears of loopholes within the Death with Dignity laws that fail to protect the patient from coercion and abuse by others.

A disability rights organization called Not Dead Yet views assisted suicide and euthanasia as deadly forms of discrimination against old, ill and disabled people. Not Dead Yet also raises concerns that at the time of the patient’s death, the law does not require an independent witness to be present to verify that the patient is administering the drugs as opposed to being pressured into using them. Furthermore, Marilyn Golden , senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, points out that among other potential problems that may stem from legalization of assisted suicide, not every terminal prognosis is correct.

Ultimately, 21 years after the first policy reforms were proposed, support of and opposition to Death with Dignity laws continue to be debated. The recent death of Brittany Maynard has brought new attention nationally to this topic and has ignited more discussions. It is unclear whether more states will pass some sort of Death with Dignity law; however, it is apparent that while 70% of Americans may support it, there remains reluctance in the majority to legalize it at the moment.

Alexandra Bhatti, student intern Jacoby & Meyers.