#TBT: Brittany Maynard and The Death With Dignity Act
The Brittany Maynard Fund for Death with Dignity Acts
Earlier in 2014, Brittany Maynard made headlines with a letter stating her decision to die on her own terms. She was a 29-year-old newlywed who wanted to start a family. Her brave story has sparked interest in the Death with Dignity Act and the American individual’s choice to die. At Everlasting Footprint, we are interested in issues and discussions surrounding death, and we chose to find out more about Brittany Maynard, her decision, and the politics of the Death with Dignity Act.
Brittany Maynard: Sharing her Decision for Death with Dignity
A beautiful, intelligent, and thoughtful woman, Brittany Maynard showed the world a common sense approach to her own death, revealing the reasons why she decided to die as she did.
Brittany suffered from a cancerous brain tumor that was so large, surgery could not remove it, and radiation would greatly decrease any quality of her life. Doctors could not give her anything but a terminal diagnosis. Brittany believed that once the tumor began to degenerate her tissues, she would linger for weeks or months in a vegetative state, because she was otherwise young and healthy. Thanks to the option for Death with Dignity, Brittany was able to get the prescription to end her life and experience some relief, knowing that she could relieve herself of her pain whenever the time was right. On November 1, 2014, Brittany Maynard ended her life gracefully, surrounded by her loved ones.
Brief History of the Death with Dignity Act
Slow to gain momentum across the United States, the movement to allow a person to voluntarily end their life (sometimes called euthanasia) has remained a decision at the state level. Oregon was the first state to support a Death with Dignity Act, passing a law in 1994, and re-confirming it in 1997. Washington followed with its own Act in 2008, and Vermont recently passed its own legislation in 2013.
All the states’ Death with Dignity laws are similar in that the patient must be terminally ill, with six months or less to live. There is usually a 48 hour waiting period before being granted a prescription for euthanasia, and the process can be cancelled at any time. The person applying for a euthanasia prescription must be an adult, and must have their illness verified by two physicians. People choosing to die with dignity must also have their mental state verified by two physicians, to be sure that they are making a competent decision and not being coerced. People making this choice must be sure.
Concerns with Death with Dignity Laws
There have been concerns over this type of legislation, but so far, the Death with Dignity laws have not led to an abundance of assisted suicides in the states that have enacted them. One concern has been voiced by religious organizations, who promote the belief that suicide is a sin. Other concerns voiced include that handicapped individuals might choose euthanasia to avoid becoming a burden to their families.
Doctors cite that their Hippocratic Oath, a promise to “do no harm,” is often interpreted that doctors must save lives, not help end them. Other people express fears that society might become insensitive to death, or that people will begin to feel that life is disposable.
Arguments for Death with Dignity
On the opposite end of the argument is the idea that any person has the right to prevent suffering. Anyone who has been witness to a loved one in terrible pain or dying a slow death will attest to the value of this law.
If we cannot make this most personal of decisions for ourselves, than what rights do we have? Supporters of Death with Dignity argue that only an can judge the joy he or she is experiencing. If a terminal illness takes that away, does each person not deserve the opportunity to choose the way he or she wants to die? For example, the Unitarian faith is in favor of “self-determination” of an individual’s death.
Some argue that since Americans have access to Living Wills that deny life-prolonging measures then Americans can die instead of extending life. However, this is not the same thing. In hospice, patients are usually medicated and not fed once they cannot assimilate food, but the process can take weeks. There is no way to know how much pain a person might be in. The euthanasia process allows a patient to knowingly end his or her life before experiencing the worst of their illness’s symptoms.
Death with Dignity in America Today
In the American healthcare system, unfortunately financial concerns do matter. Although ideal that people would value life over finances, anyone that experiences an operation or an extended illness today can attest that, without health insurance (and even with it), a terminal illness can bankrupt a family. Although the argument is made that we should allow access to adequate medical care to anyone in need, the reality is that doesn’t happen.
Putting the decisions to assess a patient in a doctor’s hands seems to imply a possibility that some doctors will want to euthanize with people, however, because the cost of the drugs used to end life costs less than $50, a physician would make more money trying to keep a patient alive. Requiring two doctors’ opinions should provide a fail-safe that prevents unscrupulous doctors from hurting people. Ultimately, death with dignity is the patient’s choice, and not the doctor’s.
One of the possibilities that this law cannot prevent is if a patient goes into remission. It can be a risk to wait too long, because the person may reach a point where he or she cannot be deemed competent to make the decision to end his or her life.
The passing of Brittany Maynard last month garnered national attention to the debate around death with dignity, and currently Maryland and New Jersey are considering their own laws. A heroine in the making, her story was so public that it allowed everyone to witness this beautiful woman’s choice. At Everlasting Footprint we honor her for being an activist by making this controversial decision.