Brittany Maynard’s death Saturday ripped open a national debate that had been brewing since the 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s right-to-die law. It’s a debate long overdue: whether a dying person has a right to control how that dying occurs.
We think they should, and hope Maynard’s bravery during the last weeks of her life will be a catalyst for rational laws that allow people who have been given a death sentence by an illness the ability to escape the pain and indignities of the final days, should they choose.
Maynard was diagnosed last spring with a stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor, and given six months to live. That’s when she and her family moved from the Bay Area to Portland. In researching her disease, she discovered the right-to-die movement and decided to make her final months meaningful to others. She did. She explains this in two videos she made and posted online with the help of Compassion and Choices, a group working to expand aid-in-dying laws.
More than 9 million people have viewed the first video, in which a young and vibrant Maynard seems far from death. What made her story so compelling is that she didn’t fit the image of a terminally ill person and it seemed wrong that this seemingly healthy person was planning to take a lethal dose of medication on Nov. 1.
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That Maynard didn’t look sick was part of what made her illness so horrible. Her body was strong and healthy, while her brain went haywire. Among other things, those with brain tumors suffer excruciating headaches and neck pain, nausea and seizures. The personality changes and mental impairments – an inability to talk or recognize the people you love – are just as terrible.
In the second video, this one made in mid-October, Maynard looks less vibrant – she’s bloated from the medication, looks tired and cries often. Clearly, dying has become horribly real to her. She talks of having seizures, of being unable to speak and not recognizing herself in the mirror. “I feel myself getting sicker,” she says. It’s heartbreaking to watch.
There’s a third video, too, but it’s not a deathbed testimonial that might have completed the trilogy in an obvious, awful way. In it, Maynard speaks to California lawmakers, who will be shown the video at some point in the undetermined future, according to Compassion and Choices, possibly during a hearing on as-yet proposed legislation.
So, in that sense, it is a message of hope for other Californians that, when their time comes, they might not have to leave home to control their own ending.