Editorials

Give the dying the right to pick how and when to die

Brittany Maynard, terminally ill with a brain tumor, could legally end her life on Saturday in Oregon.
Brittany Maynard, terminally ill with a brain tumor, could legally end her life on Saturday in Oregon. Maynard family

It has been 20 years since Oregon adopted the nation’s first “death with dignity” law, allowing physicians to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients. And it has been 17 years since the legal challenges were defeated and the law took effect.

That’s more than enough time to conclude that the law has not led to a rash of coerced suicides by family members tired of taking care of Granny. It did not lead to a rash of anything, in fact.

Data from the Oregon Public Health Division show that between 1997 and 2013, 1,173 terminally ill patients received prescriptions for life-ending medication and only 752 of them decided to use the medication. Another 31 people may have taken the medication, but the information wasn’t reported to the state.

Those numbers are evidence that the fear mongering that has shut down past attempts to get similar laws passed – including efforts in California – was baseless. The data should also empower political leaders in other states to restart the public debate about whether dying people have the right to consciously choose how they live, or don’t, in their final days.

California may be the first, thanks to Brittany Maynard. The 29-year-old from the East Bay was diagnosed in April with an incurable, aggressive brain tumor that kills its victims in a particularly horrible way that involves seizures, memory loss, personality changes and pain.

Maynard doesn’t want to go that way. So she and her family moved to Oregon where the law allows her some control over a certain end. At this point, she’s planning to take the lethal medication on Saturday. Meanwhile, she has spent her final days advocating for right-to-die laws.

Her message has resonated nationally. It is this week’s cover story for People magazine.

The last legislative attempt in California was seven years ago. But Assembly Bill 374, the California Compassionate Choices Act, stalled before it could get a full vote even though Speaker Fabian Núñez was a co-author.

Some things haven’t changed. Organizations opposed in 2007 still are opposed – the Catholic Church and the California Medical Association, among others. The California Coalition Against Assisted Suicide is actively speaking out against “assisted suicide.” (The other side calls it “aid in dying.”) People are still getting arrested and going to jail for helping loved ones with terminal illness, even things as simple as handing morphine to a dying parent.

But enough has changed culturally since 2007 that it’s an open question. While a majority of voters in California passed Proposition 8 banning gay marriage in 2008, just a few short years later, gay marriage was legal and accepted, not just in California but a growing number of states.

The right-to-die’s toughest opponent, the Catholic Church, has changed, too. Pope Francis has refocused on poverty and human rights. Baby boomers have begun to grapple with the end-of-life realities of their parents and themselves.

And then, of course, there is Brittany Maynard, whose sad story could be a game changer.

“It brought younger Americans to the issue in a way that made them think it could happen to them,” said Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center in Oregon. She said polls show millennials generally support right-to-die laws, but don’t think it’s very relevant to their lives. Now they might.

Toni Broaddus, California campaign manager for Compassion & Choices, says there is a new campaign for a right-to-die law in California. Though whether it will be through legislation or the ballot hasn’t been decided yet.

Legislators have been reaching out to Compassion & Choices, and donations and volunteers to the cause have increased. A poll this summer showed about 64 percent of likely California voters supporting a death with dignity-style law.

Before then, Maynard might take her lethal medication. Or she might not, as she wrote in a recent essay. Data from Oregon show it is a fairly common choice by people who receive the medication. That’s the point; it’s their choice.

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