Brittany Maynard: New face of right-to-die
Saturday was supposed to be the day that Brittany Maynard killed herself. She still might do it, but her latest message seems to suggest she intends to live, at least for a while.
Regardless, this 29-year-old woman suffering from terminal brain cancer has shared her journey to death with a transfixed world. Some have cheered her, while others have decried her choice and pleaded with her to let nature take its course instead.
Maynard’s very public decision has made the right-to-die movement something real and immediate for a generation of millennials too young to have confronted their own mortality. Her youth, candor and simple but moving plans — to die in the Oregon bedroom she shares with her husband — have attracted a global following: A YouTube video has more than 9.3 million views; her fund’s website has been visited more than 4 million times, including from such far-flung places as Tajikistan, Iceland, Syria and Burkina Faso.
“It’s changed everything for us in terms of awareness,” says Barbara Coombs Lee, co-author of Oregon’s death-with-dignity law and president of Compassion & Choices, which seeks to expand such measures around the nation and has partnered with Maynard. “The general public has sort of an unspoken expectation that this is what old people deal with. Brittany Maynard’s situation is so different. She’s young, she’s vibrant. She could be my daughter. She could be a granddaughter, a neighbor, a school friend.”
Maynard’s right-to-die arguments are not new, but her unfolding tragedy — relayed through tweets, videos and other social media — has broadened the conversation to include more of her peers, says Abraham Schwab, a medical ethicist at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. “She’s changed the debate by changing the audience of the debate,” he adds.
Maynard, who was given six months to live this spring, announced this summer she would die on her own terms with a lethal dose of drugs — permitted under Oregon law — rather than suffer the debilitating effects of her spreading cancer. She’d originally planned to end her life Nov. 1, but supporters said that was always a flexible date. In a video released Thursday, she suggested she likely will wait.
“I still feel good enough and I still have enough joy and I still laugh and smile with my family and friends enough that it doesn’t seem like the right time right now,” she says in the video released by Compassion & Choices. “But it will come, because I feel myself getting sicker. It’s happening each week.”
Maynard said if Sunday arrives and she’s gone, she hopes her family “is still proud of me” but if she’s alive “we’ll be still be moving forward as a family” and the decision will come later.
Noting some people think she doesn’t look as sick as she is, Maynard said she’s gained more than 25 pounds in the last three months with the help of medicine. She also described a “terrifying” set of seizures about a week ago when she looked at her husband, Dan, and couldn’t say his name.
Wiping away tears at times, Maynard said it hurts when people criticize her for moving too quickly. “The worst thing that could happen to me is that I wait too long because I’m trying to seize each day but that I somehow have the autonomy taken away from me because of my disease,” she said.
The video features Maynard, strolling hand-and-hand with her husband in the woods and enjoying an outdoor meal with him and her mother. At one point, she holds up a September 2012 photo of herself as a beaming bride. It’s one of many images posted online in recent months, including photos of her and Dan kissing during a recent trip to the Grand Canyon, which she called the last item on her bucket list.
While much of the media spotlight — Maynard has appeared on the cover of “People” magazine and been featured in hundreds of news articles — has focused on her age and appearance, her case is also intriguing because she’s not following the traditional path of many cancer patients, says Dr. Eric Widera, a palliative care specialist at the University of California-San Francisco.
“The typical story that we see is you have this bright, young, pretty person who is dealing with this disease, fighting ... against all odds and then eventually pulling through thanks to technological innovations in medicine, thanks to her willpower, prayer, her family support,” he says. Maynard has decided “to focus more on the quality of her life rather than the quantity. ... She’s saying, ‘I have this. It’s not going away and I want to have control over how my life is and honestly how my death plays out.’”
Maynard disclosed her intentions when she described how she was diagnosed in January with brain cancer, then given the six-month prognosis in April. She moved from California to Oregon, which in 1997 became the first state to make it legal for a doctor ta prescribe a life-ending drug to a terminally ill patient of sound mind who makes the request.
The median age of death for those who have taken their lives under this law is 71.
Four other states — Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico — allow patients to seek aid in dying. New Mexico’s attorney general is appealing a ruling in his state that allows terminally ill patients to seek a physician’s help in ending their lives.
Maynard’s decision has not been without controversy. Some religious groups and others opposed to physician-assisted suicide have voiced objections, including the American Life League. “There is something that is as fundamentally wrong with her arriving at this decision just as it is for the person who jumps off a roof,” says Judie Brown, the group’s president.
Philip Johnson, a seminarian from the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, also weighed in online with a more personal take: He was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer in 2008 at age 24.
“I do feel for her and understand her difficult situation, but no diagnosis warrants suicide,” he wrote. “A diagnosis of terminal cancer uproots one’s whole life, and the decision to pursue physician-assisted suicide seeks to grasp at an ounce of control in the midst of turmoil. It is an understandable temptation to take this course of action, but that is all that it is — a temptation to avoid an important reality of life.”
In her video, Maynard says she’d like her husband, Dan, to someday become a father. She also talks of her own fate.
“If all my dreams came true, I would somehow survive this but,” she says, reaching for a tissue, “I most likely won’t.”
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at email@example.com.