Brittany Maynard, who was diagnosed with brain cancer at 29, moved from California to Oregon, where physician assisted suicide was legal, dying there because California forbade the practice.

Half of U.S. states consider right-to-die legislation

Brittany Maynard, who was diagnosed with brain cancer at 29, moved from California to Oregon, where physician assisted suicide is legal, dying there because California forbids the practice.

Brittany Maynard, who was diagnosed with brain cancer at 29, moved from California to Oregon, where physician assisted suicide is legal, dying there because California forbids the practice.

More than a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, are considering controversial medically assisted death legislation this year.

The laws would allow mentally fit, terminally ill patients age 18 and older, whose doctors say they have six months or less to live, to request lethal drugs.

Oregon was the first state to implement its Death with Dignity Act in 1997 after voters approved the law in 1994, and four other states -- Montana, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington -- now allow for medically assisted death.

As of April 10, at least another 25 states have considered death with dignity bills, according to Compassion & Choices, a Denver-based nonprofit organization that advocates for these laws. Some of those bills already have died in committee.

"The movement has reached a threshold where it is unstoppable," said President Barbara Coombs of Compassion & Choices, who was also chief petitioner for the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.

The issue of medically assisted death rose to prominence last year with the case of Brittany Maynard, 29, who was told she had six months to live after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Maynard was a strong advocate for Death with Dignity, and when she learned of her grim prognosis, she moved from her home state of California to Oregon where terminally ill patients are allowed to end their own lives.

"I would not tell anyone else that he or she should choose death with dignity," she wrote in an op-ed on CNN.com. "My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don't deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain? Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?"

Maynard died on Nov. 1 after taking a lethal prescription provided to her by a doctor under Oregon’s death-with-dignity law.

Many states have proposed these bills, which some advocates call right-to-die legislation, after Maynard's eventual death in November of last year, but so far none of them have passed.

Coombs, whose organization worked with Maynard to "help carry her voice and her message," credited Maynard's advocacy with helping put the issue in the public eye, to the point where legislators are hearing from their constituents that this is a pressing need.

"Brittany Maynard's death ... made it a political issue for younger people, not just older people," said Arthur Caplan, founding director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center's Department of Population Health.

The issue has sparked debate with opponents who argue that, given the risk of mistakes or abuse, medically assisted death laws present more dangers than benefits.

"There is a deadly mix when you combine our broken, profit-driven health care system with legalizing assisted suicide," said Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

The possibility of patients being financially or emotionally pressured into a decision to end their own lives is also a major concern, Golden said.

"Assisted suicide automatically becomes the cheapest (treatment) option," Golden said. "They (patients) are being steered toward hastening their deaths."

Golden pointed out that the safeguards in place with the legislation in Oregon do not address certain issues, such as doctor shopping, where patients whose physician deems them unfit for lethal medication seek treatment with other doctors who might give them a more favorable answer.

The fact that the legislation does not require the presence of objective witnesses could mean that patients are not willingly self-administering the medication as the law intends, Golden said. It opens up the possibility of elder abuse by heirs or abuse caretakers.

Coombs said the Oregon law has functioned as it was meant to and even has led to unexpected benefits in improving quality of life for terminally ill patients.

"I think the movement is a good thing," Caplan said. "It has proven to be effective and not abused in Oregon and Washington."

Many of the people who request the medication never end up taking it though having it allows them to have a sense of security, Caplan said.

With proper checks and balances, the law should not be problematic, he said.

"Between one-third and one-half of patients never take the medication," Coombs said. "They just derive a lot of peace of mind from having the option."

Maynard, who received her prescription in May last year, held onto it until November, once she had decided that the suffering had gotten to be too much, she said.

In Oregon between 1997 and 2014, 1,327 people were prescribed lethal medication, 859 of whom died from ingesting the medication, according to the latest data from the Oregon Public Health Division's yearly report. In Washington state, 549 people received prescriptions under the state's Death with Dignity Act from 2009 to 2013; 525 of them died, though not all of these deaths are confirmed to have been the result of ingesting the medication, the state Department of Health's latest report states.

Both Oregon and Washington found that participants had three major concerns: loss of autonomy, diminishing ability to engage in the activities that make life enjoyable, and loss of dignity. Meanwhile, only about a third of patients in both states were concerned about inadequate pain control.

"It's not as simple as pain," Coombs said. "Everyone gets to identify their own definition of suffering."

Similar bills repeatedly have failed to pass either as ballot initiatives or as legislative measures in other states. More than 140 similar proposals in 27 states have failed since 1994, according to the Patients Rights Council.

(Malak Monir writes for USA Today)

KRE END MONIR

Comments

  1. Finally, really rational arguments against, “Right to die” legislation! None of this, “God owns your life” nonsense.

    Many of these laws lack proper checks and balances to ensure it is not being used as a excuse to speed up receipt of inheritance or clear beds at rest homes/hospitals.

    I would add one more objection. If one is capable of providing clear consent to kill themselves they are also capable of performing the act themselves. Without assistance by physicians or civil servants.

  2. Since we are all going to die, the “right to die” is as moot as the “right to breathe”. This is another terrible idea to legalize suicide. Let’s open up this Nazi practice and call it a virtuous choice. “Gather ’round, kids, Daddy’s gonna blow his head off… I love you.” Secular perspectives are crude and immoral.
    Abortion, Gay Marriage, Suicide, Drug Use. Nice legacy the “civilized” world is leaving the future.

  3. ““Gather ’round, kids, Daddy’s gonna blow his head off… I love you.”

    If they did that, one wouldn’t need “right to die legislation” in the first place. That was my objection. If you can blow your head off you don’t need doctors or government figures to help you die.

  4. Hell has frozen over……we agree on something.

  5. But thankfully not for the same reasons. I couldn’t give a rat’s posterior about what you think is “moral decline” or your opinion of the act as “unvirtuous” or not.

    Its the lack of necessity in dragging doctors and our laws into it. If you can decide to die, you can kill yourself.

  6. Oh, I wasn’t implying we liked each other….

  7. My friend will be 100 this summer. His wife is 96. She has been confined to a wheel chair for over twenty years. Now she is unable to speak, or take any care of herself, or make herself understood. She just sleeps unless awakened by the staff of the nursing home. My friend’s mind is clear, but his body is worn out. He only lives through will power, because he refuses to leave his wife “alone”. After all, they are highly educated immigrants, and are not understood or appreciated by their low wage caretakers. My friend longs for his wife to die so that he may die as well.

  8. There will be a great crowd of survivors of the great tribulation and Armageddon on earth after the end of this wicked era we are living in (Revelation 7:9, 13-17). There will be those who will not have to face death at all.

  9. I can appreciate how he feels; he is still showing true love for his wife because he does not want to leave her alone.

  10. Fran,
    Certainly, but my purpose was to illustrate how complex the problem of when, and how to, end life really is. If his wife were to die tomorrow, the man would feel he had done his duty, and he would immediately seek his own death -but would not have the means to accomplish it without assistance. If I, or even a family member, were to assist, we would be subject to criminal prosecution. The truth is that many, many, Doctors have always assisted such patients. Why should they have to run legal risks in order to do so?

  11. Not to be overly gruesome, but how would he not have the means to seek his own death? If his mind is clear, he can find means to end his life.

    It may not be as quick and painless as an overdose of pain medication, but it is possible.

  12. Perhaps such difficult issues can be decided by the people directly involved and we can leave the police out of it.

  13. These articles keep repeating that New Mexico has a right to die in place. The last time I checked (2 weeks ago) the Court of Appeal had not yet ruled on the Albuquerque trial court opinion. And it will surely go to the NM Supreme Court. The trial court ruling is probably stayed and in any event only applies in that judicial district (Albuquerque and thereabouts). So please do some research and try to refrain from repeating other poorly documented articles.

  14. I simply think we should leave such decisions to the doctors and the families. As the Jesuits say, the best is the enemy of the good.

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