Brittany Maynard's death galvanizes public right-to-die debate

Advocates for expanding right-to-die laws beyond a handful of states in the U.S. expect attention from Brittany Maynard's story to carry into the new year, when state legislatures go into session.

Woman in Oregon with inoperable brain cancer ended her life on Saturday

This undated file photo provided by the Maynard family shows Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old terminally ill woman. (Maynard Family/The Associated Press)

Brittany Maynard's last days started a national conversation in the U.S. about whether it's OK for a terminally ill person to end their own life.

Now that she has died, it's time to see whether the millions of clicks and views she generated online trigger more than just talk.

Advocates for expanding right-to-die laws beyond a handful of states expect attention from the young woman's story to carry into the new year, when state legislatures go into session.

"Up and down New England, the East Coast, and then in the West, too," said Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center. "I think on both coasts we're going to see legislative action."

That optimism, however, will be met with the political reality that such legislation has been pushed for years, often unsuccessfully.
In this Oct. 21, 2014, file photo provided by TheBrittanyFund.org, Brittany Maynard and her husband Dan Diaz pose at the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. (The Associated Press)

"Suicide is never a good solution, regardless of the situation that one is confronting," said Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, a Catholic group.

Maynard, terminally ill with brain cancer, was in the national spotlight for about a month after publicizing that she and her husband, Dan Diaz, moved to Portland from Northern California so that she could use the Oregon law to end her life on her own terms. Maynard told journalists she planned to die Nov. 1, and followed through on Saturday. She was 29.

Maynard wanted to spark political action

She approached the advocacy group Compassion & Choices during the summer in hopes that telling her story would lead to political action in California and across the nation. Whether that happens is an open question. Maynard, however, succeeded in raising awareness about an issue that was trending on Facebook and Twitter after her death.

"Younger people support death with dignity at really high levels, but it's not necessarily relevant or salient to their lives," Sandeen said. "I think the Brittany Maynard story makes it real."

Vermont last year became the first state to legalize aid in dying through legislation — Oregon and Washington did so by referendum; in Montana and New Mexico, it was effectively legalized through court decisions.
This photo provided by Compassion & Choices shows Brittany Maynard. A spokesman for Maynard says she has taken lethal medication prescribed by a doctor and died, while surrounded by family. (Compassion and Choices/The Associated Press)

In New Jersey, the state Assembly considered but failed to pass an aid-in-dying bill in June. Democratic Assemblyman John Burzichelli, who authored the bill, said he is hopeful it can pass the state's lower chamber before the end of the year. If that happens, he expects the Senate to pass it soon after, he said.

"It's very clear to me that the majority voice in New Jersey want another choice," Burzichelli said.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie has said he opposes the measure.

Compassion & Choice is spending about $7 million a year to protect the practice in states where it has been authorized and passing legislation in states where it has not, said Mickey MacIntyre, the group's chief program officer.

The group said its website has had more than 5 million unique visitors over the past month. Maynard's two videos, meanwhile, have been viewed more than 13 million times on YouTube alone.

Conservatives sharply criticize right-to-die

"The incredible number of people who have been inspired by Brittany's story, we hope to translate that into action in moving toward legislative change in this coming session," MacIntyre said.

Of course, not everyone who viewed the videos is a fan. Social conservatives have sharply criticized Maynard's decision, and it's unlikely any Republican-controlled legislatures will be considering right-to-die laws.

A leader of a legislative committee that handles health issues in Wyoming said she believes there's no chance the state would enact a law allowing doctor-assisted suicide.

"My sense is Wyoming would reject it out of hand, it would just be a flat `no,"' said State Rep. Elaine Harvey, adding that people in the state have said consistently that they value life.

"That's my personal values as well: we don't get to pick," Harvey said. "The big guy upstairs chooses when we go and when we stay."

Maynard's relatives asked for privacy Monday and have not released information about funeral arrangements. A spokesman for Compassion & Choices said she died peacefully, surrounded by family and friends in the bedroom of her Portland home.

Oregon was the first U.S. state to make it legal for a doctor to prescribe a life-ending drug to a terminally ill patient. Through June 30, just over 800 people had used the law since it took effect shortly after the November 1997 election.

Those who take the drug typically fall asleep shortly and die within a half-hour.

Willi Moelzer, 74, a retired high school teacher from Eugene, died last year after obtaining a life-ending prescription from his doctor.

"For my husband it was very peaceful," said Janet Moelzer, who now volunteers for Compassion & Choices.

"He was looking forward to it," she said Monday. "We had a little party honoring him beforehand and then he went back to the bedroom at the time we had decided on. He drank his orange juice with the medicine in it, and went to sleep."

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