Health Law

Terminally ill Brittany Maynard ends her life; her act may influence right-to-die debate

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The death of Brittany Maynard, the terminally ill woman who died Saturday at her Oregon home after taking a lethal dose of barbiturates prescribed by her physician, may forever change the right-the-die debate in this country.

In the weeks leading up to her death, the 29-year-old Maynard, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer earlier this year, became the face of the debate, the Washington Post reports. And now that she is gone, the path she pioneered may bring the physician-assisted suicide movement to a new generation.

Because Maynard was such a “young, vivacious, attractive” woman, says Arthur Caplan, an expert on medical ethics at New York University, she has changed the optics of the debate.

In Oregon, the median age of someone using the state’s right-to-die law is 71, the Post reported. Only six people under the age of 34 have used it.

“Now we have a young woman getting people in her generation interested in the issue,” Caplan wrote in an article for Medscape. “Critics are worried about her partly because she’s speaking to that new audience, and they know that the younger generation of America has shifted attitudes about gay marriage and the use of marijuana, and maybe they are going to have that same impact in pushing physician-assisted suicide forward.”

Only three states—Oregon, Washington and Vermont—explicitly allow physician-assisted suicide. The Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that state law doesn’t prohibit end-of-life care. And a New Mexico district court judge, in a decision that is still under appeal, held earlier this year that terminally ill people who are mentally competent have a constitutional right to legally prescribed end-of-life drugs, Time magazine reported.

But similar legislation is now pending in at least seven other states. And New Jersey Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Cloucester County), the sponsor of a bill there, told the Philadelphia Inquirer last month that he thinks the measure will pass the state legislature by the end of the year. New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie, however, has said he opposes the measure, the Associated Press reported.

Caplan said Maynard’s death may be only the beginning of a much longer debate.

“My forecast is that we are going to see more push to put these laws in the front of state legislatures and to get them on state ballots,” he wrote. “We are going to see more states move in this direction. That ultimately may be her legacy to the physician-assisted suicide debate.”

No right-to-die legislation is on any of Tuesday ballots, however, the AP reported.

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