A 29 Year Old Woman Is Choosing To Die Rather Than Suffer Through Terminal Cancer

A 29 year old woman will end her life in less than a month. That should be her choice.

 

Advance Medical Directive

A 29 year old Oregon woman has chosen the day she’s going to die, and it’s reopening the debate over the rights of terminally ill patients to end their lives with dignity:

If everything goes as planned in her life, 29-year-old Brittany Maynard’s death will occur on Saturday Nov. 1 — in her bed, on an upper floor of her Portland, Oregon home, with cherished music filling the room.

Lately, though, nothing in Maynard’s life has flowed like she once dreamed — no children with her newlywed husband, no more time. She has brain cancer, grade 4 glioblastoma. In April, a doctor told her she had six months to live.

Now, Maynard has embarked on a rare farewell bathed in politics and poignancy — all painstakingly organized and openly shared, she said, in a bid to help to change laws for dying Americans who feel they are forced to endure the full, gruesome descent of a terminal illness.

Maynard made three choices that are elevating her final days to viral immortality. She moved with her husband, Dan, from San Francisco to Oregon — one of five states where doctors can legally prescribe life-ending drugs to the dying. She obtained the two bottles of lethal pills and selected the precise moment, place, guests and soundtrack for her last breaths. And she posted the reasons for all this in a video that, as of Wednesday night, had received more than 3.5 million views.

“I can’t even tell you the amount of relief that it provides me to know that I don’t have to die the way that it’s been described to me that my brain tumor would take me on its own,” Maynard says in the video. “…I hope to pass in peace. The reason to consider life, and what’s of value is, to make sure you’re not missing out.

“Seize the day. What’s important to you? What do you care about? What matters? Pursue that. Forget the rest,” she says.

“Death with dignity,” her husband adds on the video, “allows for people who are in the predicament of facing a lot of suffering that they can decide when enough is enough.”

Advocates in the “death-with-dignity” cause — a decades-long push to give more Americans access to legal, end-of-life options — view Maynard’s crusade as “a tipping point.” They assert she seems to be engaging scores of younger people who likely never mulled this tortuous issue, typically faced by older folks.

“This movement is gaining traction by the hour,” said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit dedicated to expanding the rights of the terminally ill. “You have had Stephen Hawking saying, ‘I want this option,’ and Desmond Tutu saying he is devoting the last years to death with dignity. Then, suddenly, here’s this thing with Brittany, and you say: ‘It’s really happening. The tide has turned.'”

(…)

“She resonates because we were all once 29. A lot of us remember when we were starting our families. And a lot of us have lost a loved one to a brutal disease,” Coombs said. “She is aware of the injustice that she had to uproot herself, her family, her home and establish a new home as a legitimate Oregon resident in order to qualify” to get the fast-acting drugs that, when swallowed, will caused her to fall asleep, depress her breathing, and end her life.

An attorney and former ER and ICU nurse, Coombs Lee coauthored Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, on the books since 1997. In the ensuing years, more than 1,170 Oregon residents have obtained end-of-life prescriptions under the law, and more than 750 people have used them, according to Oregon state health records.

Four other states — Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico — have aid-in-dying laws.

But Oregon ranks among the states with the highest “suicide rates,” said Jennifer Popik, legislative counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, which calls each of those deaths “a preventable tragedy.”

“While the case of Brittany Maynard is tragic, the fact of the matter is that in the states where doctor-prescribed suicide is legal and records are kept, most people seek suicide not because they are experiencing pain from illness, but because they feel like they are becoming a burden or losing autonomy,” Popik said.

“States that have laws legalizing doctor-prescribed suicide are turning their backs on vulnerable populations of people who are either depressed or worried about what their future holds,” she added. “… These laws do not offer a patient ‘dignity’ but only abandonment from health care workers and family who are supposed to care for patients and loved ones in these dire times.”

Maynard’s case is attention grabbing, of course, because it doesn’t fall into the typical category of the terminally ill person who, absent the choices that Oregon law gives to her, would otherwise be facing a future where she will waste away and suffer until they die, typically doped up on morphine and other painkillers. Instead she’s young, seemingly healthy looking to outside observers, and arguably a textbook case for the kind of person who should be “fighting” their cancer rather than looking forward to an end that is now less than a month away. It strikes me, however, that her case is the perfect example of what this issue is really all about. In the end, we are talking about the right of an individual who is faced with a terminal illness to end their life on their own terms rather than to follow the supposedly acceptable course of allowing themselves to be pumped full of endless amounts of drugs that don’t end up working and just make an already painful situation, for the patient and their loved ones, even worse. Then, when the end comes and its obvious that further treatments won’t work, the only option modern medicine gives people is to suffer away until the end, with their body pumped so full of painkillers that they are barely aware of what’s going on around them. Is it really any surprise that someone would want to avoid this fate when presented with their options beforehand?

This isn’t an easy issue, of course, and it’s not one that should be treated flippantly by either side. For one thing, a terminal diagnosis is not always, well, terminal. People who have been diagnosed with terminal cancers or other diseases sometimes recover, and many of those who recover go on to lead reasonably normal lives. Additionally, there are legitimate concerns about people who are in this condition being unduly pressured by family members, health care providers, insurance companies, or government policy to make the decision to end treatment or take affirmative steps to end their life. This is why laws regarding this matter need to be carefully written and, more importantly, why end of life care is something that people ought to pre-plan for in the form of what are popularly known as “Living Wills” but are usually actually called Advance Medical Directives. Additionally, these are decisions that should not be undertaken lightly and, ideally, with the support and advice of friends and family, which Maynard clearly seems to have done in this case. Ultimately, though, it is a choice that can only properly be made by the individual involved, and the opinions of others outside of family members are neither relevant nor helpful in cases such as this.

The default position on this issue really ought to be the individual choice of the person who is actually afflicted with a terminal condition. Some will argue that allowing people to make this choice will have implications for “society,” such as the supposed dignity of life and, has even been suggested to me in some discussions on this issue, the value that continued medical treatment on someone in this condition could have for others. In the end, though, “society” is nothing more than just a collection of individuals and it has no rights above those of the individual, especially in a situation such as this. Additionally, as I’ve said before, anyone who has had a family member or loved one in this situation is well aware just how painful the suffering can be just to watch, and how personal a decision the question of whether or not to continue further treatment can actually be. The same, obviously, would be true of the kind of affirmative decision that Maynard is making in this case. The idea that how to proceed should be anything other than an individual choice, then, is nothing other than a tremendous affront on the entire idea of individual autonomy and liberty.

Not everyone will make the choice that Brittany Maynard is making, and many people will say that she’s making the wrong choice and that she is far too young to give up so easily. However, in the end, it is her choice to make and I don’t see how anyone can claim to have the right to prevent her from making it.

FILED UNDER: Health, Law and the Courts, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. grumpy realist says:

    But suffering is good for God, don’t yer know…..

    It is always surprising to me that we allow pets to die with more dignity and in more peace than we allow our fellow humans.

    Oh, and those Do Not Resuscitate directives? Half of the time hospitals ignore them “because we know better.”

  2. PJ says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    A 29 year old Oregon woman has chosen the day she’s going to die, and it’s reopening the debate over the rights of terminally ill patients to end their lives with dignity

    Maynard’s case is attention grabbing, of course, because it doesn’t fall into the typical category of the terminally ill person who, absent the choices that Oregon law gives to her, would otherwise be facing a future where she will waste away and suffer until they die, typically doped up on morphine and other painkillers.

    She’s not really an Oregon woman, she moved there only to be able to have the choice to end her life. If she hadn’t moved there, she would have faced a future where should would have suffered and died. It’s all in the NBC article.

  3. @PJ:

    Fair point

  4. PJ says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Which also makes it a lot more attention grabbing, she’s not just someone with an terminal illness in a state allowing her to end her life, she’s moving to such a state for only one reason, to end her own life.

  5. Mr. Prosser says:

    Situations like this remind me of this quote from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “They couldn’t dominate Death … but they certainly made her behave. They had taught her manners. They couldn’t keep Death out, but while she was in she had to act like a lady.” Taking action to control the end of your life when possible is one of the most mature and responsible actions one can take. Unfortunately “Society” as you say, has not yet become too mature.

  6. President Camacho says:

    I can see a guy like Gov Perry saying “She should move to Texas so they can pray it away. How dare those smelly nasty libs give her a choice. Dope her up on morphine and we will pray that sh&$ away!”

    It is nice to see a state let adults make adult choices. Bless her and her family in this tough time.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    I guess we are wasting good money on those Death Panels if people are just going to take matters into their own hands.
    If I were her I would crash one of my motorcycles into a big rock so that my kin could collect the life insurance. But perhaps that train had already left the station.
    Anyway…good on her. Death with Dignity.
    Now all we need is for Republicans to second guess her diagnosis from the floor of Congress…maybe pass a law or something.

  8. Slugger says:

    The one thing about death that is good is that it is democratic. Everyone gets to that point. Everyone who has a different opinion than this woman will get a chance to put their opinion into practice and not just in some abstract way.
    In all truth, haven’t medical professionals often given pain/anxiety easing medications in generous doses before these death with dignity laws?

  9. Liberal Capitalist says:

    @PJ:

    She’s not really an Oregon woman…

    Yes. That’s the important part of this article.

    Got it.

    (… jeez.)

    As one who cared for an individual that pass thought the final stages of abdominal cancer, having a legal option to choose what Brittany did… well, she didn’t get that chance.

    Ad death through starvation and cancer is a horror.

  10. PJ says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Yes. That’s the important part of this article.

    I just pointed out that Doug got what is a rather big part of the story wrong. If she was living in Oregon and already had this right then the story wouldn’t have got as much attention. But she wasn’t, she was living in California and for her to get the right to end her own life she had to move to another state, away from people she knows. Something that she shouldn’t have needed to.

  11. Tony W says:

    In politics it frequently comes down to the money, and this is an area where two of the Republican’s big-three constituencies share a common interest. The Christian Right wants the dying process to take its course according to “God’s” plan. The rent-seeking big-money drug companies and medical establishment want government to protect their industries by forbidding such an inexpensive and dignified death from becoming the norm.

    I am proud that at least in the Northwest the people have stood up to these behemoths.

  12. Gustopher says:

    I think her not being from Oregon really is an important part of the article. She had to move to another state to be able to make decisions about her health care and how she wanted to die.

    It’s hard not to draw a comparison to abortion here — it’s not universally accessible, and so people will travel to where they can get it, and this limits the options of the poor.

    I’m glad this woman is able to make these decisions, but I worry about those who cannot.

  13. ernieyeball says:

    A 29 year old woman will end her life in less than a month. That should be her choice.

    It was always the choice of the people that I have known who have committed suicide.
    Nobody that knew them ever wanted them to do it.

  14. T says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    As one who cared for an individual that pass thought the final stages of abdominal cancer, having a legal option to choose what Brittany did… well, she didn’t get that chance.

    Ad death through starvation and cancer is a horror.

    I empathize. My mom was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma in aug ’13 and She passed away this past April. 9 short months of nothing but absolute agony and suffering. As her only child, I was her primary caretaker and had to arrange for basically everything. She was 52.

    i’m not sure if she would have taken this sort of option if we lived in a state where it was legal and like @Slugger: said.. she was so hopped up on painkillers i dont know if she could have made a lucid decision when the moment actually came.

  15. Mikey says:

    A good friend of mine, age 35, has the same type of glioblastoma as Brittany Maynard, so I’m pretty familiar with how things could go. And I wish I knew more about what treatments Maynard was offered and received. Watching the video on NBC’s site, her face looks like she’s been taking steroids to keep her brain from swelling, but I haven’t been able to find anything specific.

    My friend was diagnosed in April after having seizures. Surgery got part of the tumor. The first chemotherapy and radiation were entirely ineffective–in fact the tumor actually grew through the radiation (I told him “man, you don’t do anything half-assed”). But subsequent treatment with a drug called Avastin, which is still relatively new, resulted in the tumor shrinking by 50% within a few weeks. This is huge–it means instead of months, he will have years. Remission is even a possibility, although a very slim one.

    I certainly agree Brittany Maynard should have the right to choose when and how her life will end, I just hope she was able to at least try different courses of treatment. (Of course we can’t assume Avastin would work on her as it has on my friend–even the same type of cancer can work differently in different people.)

  16. Tony W says:

    @ernieyeball:

    Nobody that knew them ever wanted them to do it.

    My hope is that Robin Williams put a stop to this sort of thinking.

  17. Robin Cohen says:

    I applaud her courage. We should not have to live or die in fear and terrible pain. Animals die more humanely than humans in most cases. That is unacceptable in the 21st century.

  18. beth says:

    @Mikey: That’s a very good point. I have a friend who was diagnosed with lung cancer and given just a few months to live. She scoured the country for different treatments and wound up getting some kind of aggressive new treatment (this was quite a while ago) that her insurance company wouldn’t pay for since it was considered elective. Luckily money was no object to her or her family. She’s still here, alive and well, 10 years later. I do hope this young lady’s gotten all the treatments that could possibly help her. If she has and still chooses to do this, then she should be allowed to no matter where she lives.

  19. ernieyeball says:

    @Tony W:..Yeah well my dead buddy Joe killed himself with those goddamned cigarettes. No matter what I said to him to get him to quit.
    Since he was a quadriplegic I lit those coffin nails for him when he asked. I suppose I could have just pushed him in his wheelchair in front of a Mack Truck. The end result is the same.

  20. Tony W says:

    @ernieyeball: I suppose if your point is that we all eventually die, then yes “the end result is the same” – but there’s this thing that happens in the interim called life.

    Everyone gets to define how they want to live it, within the constraints the world gives us. Most of those constraints are unequal and completely unfair. I am not qualified to condemn this woman’s choice any more than I am your buddy Joe – everyone is on a personal journey. I am sorry to hear about your loss, it is tough watching somebody make a decision day-after-day with which you disagree – but we must not lose sight of the fact that we have our own unique perspective that colors our observations.

  21. ernieyeball says:

    @Tony W:..If I want a sermon I will go to church.

  22. Pinky says:

    Just saw this today and had to link to it.