The Courageous Death of Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer, died this weekend. She and her husband had moved to Oregon so that she could take advantage of Oregon’s law permitting people to take control of their dying by accessing a lethal prescription.

Although Ms Maynard fit squarely into Oregon’s law, her decision was often touted as “controversial” because of her youth and because she chose to make her private tragedy into a public crusade to extend death-with-dignity laws beyond Oregon, Washington, and Vermont. She was extraordinarily courageous and generous. She took the small and precious reserves of time and energy she had left, and used them to try to benefit others.

Because she was young and articulate, and comfortable with the internet and social media, I think Brittany has changed the terms of the debate. She has appealed to young people who heretofore probably thought of right-to-die laws as relevant only to old people (if they thought of them at all). The freshmen I am currently teaching have been fascinated with Brittany’s story as it has unfolded online.

Many opposed to death-with-dignity laws fear that they will be used mostly by the poor, the marginalized, the lonely, those with poor health insurance. They argue that these people will feel pushed into choosing legalized suicide, and that what they need is not the right to die, but better support. In fact, Oregon has kept meticulous records (the reports are available at http://public.health.oregon.gov). In 2013, 71 people used the law to end their lives, of whom 94% were white and over half had at least a college degree. Most were enrolled in hospice at the time of their death, and 96% had some form of health insurance. Brittany Maynard was white, middle-class, articulate, had the best medical care, and was surrounded and supported by family and friends. By becoming the face of the death-with-dignity movement, she has done much to refute that misplaced objection.

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