Brittany Maynard, Cancer Victim Who Advocated For A ‘Right To Die,’ Has Ended Her Life

Freedom of choice.

Brittany Maynard

Early last month, I wrote about Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old Oregon woman who had become an advocate for the always controversial “right to die” movement when she announced that she would be ended her own life at the end of the month. Maynard had been diagnosed some time earlier with a terminal form of brain inoperable and incurable brain cancer. Several doctors had told Maynard that the cancer would eventually lead to her death, but not before she endured a long period of suffering that would likely require massive doses of pain killers just to preBrvent her from feeling pain. At the time she was initially diagnosed, Maynard and her husband moved to neighboring Oregon where there is a process to allow for physician assisted suicide. Maynard’s announcement sparked some intense media coverage, of course, and we saw both sides of the debate on this issue chime in with their opinions. Early last week, though, Maynard seemed to back away from her initial statements when she said in an interview that she had decided that the November 1st date “doesn’t seem like the right time.” As it turns out, this may have been something of a ruse to divert the attention of the media from her previous announced plans, because yesterday it was announced that Maynard had indeed ended her life on Saturday as originally planned:

Brittany Maynard fulfilled her final wish Saturday, purposely ending her own life on her own schedule, activists close to her family confirmed Sunday night.

She was 29. She was diagnosed earlier this year with a fatal brain tumor — told the cancer likely would kill her in six months. But she had no intention, she said, of allowing the disease to control how she lived, or how she died.

Maynard had planned since spring — a bittersweet stretch packed with “bucket list” moments, seizures and excruciating headaches — to escape the final stages of her cancer on Saturday by drinking a lethal mixture of water, sedatives and respiratory-system depressants.

“Brittany suffered increasingly frequent and longer seizures, severe head and neck pain, and stroke-like symptoms,” according to a statement Sunday night from Sean Crowley, spokesman for Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit working to expand end-of-life options.

“As symptoms grew more severe, she chose to abbreviate the dying process by taking the aid-in-dying medication she had received months ago. This choice is authorized under the Oregon Death With Dignity Act. She died as she intended — peacefully in her bedroom, in the arms of her loved ones,” the statement said.

An obituary also was posted to her website Sunday night, although friends have been posting Facebook farewells to Maynard since Saturday night.

“Brittany chose to make a well thought out and informed choice to Die With Dignity in the face of such a terrible, painful, and incurable illness,” the obituary reads. “She moved to Oregon to pass away in a little yellow house she picked out in the beautiful city of Portland. Oregon is a place that strives to protect patient rights and autonomy; she wished that her home State of California had also been able to provide terminally ill patients with the same choice.

On Facebook, friends and family began openly mourning Maynard’s passing Saturday evening and continued to do so throughout Sunday. Summer Holmes-Phillips and her sister, Erica Holmes-Kremitzki, posted that their “aunt, uncle, and Dan” are saying goodbye to Brittany, and they bade their own farewells.

Holmes-Kremitzki also explained in a subsequent post Sunday: “She was not ‘set’ on this date but as her condition worsened and the tumor took over control, it became increasingly more difficult for her to function. One comfort, is that she was able to make the choice to end her suffering before she was unable to function at all. That’s what SHE wanted. Cancer took her but in the end, she got to decide when enough was enough. She was done and so, I’m comforted that it was her way.”

That post was later removed.

Some of Maynard’s friends did confide privately Sunday that Maynard felt “devastated” in recent days because, they said, several media outlets and social-media commentators had fully misinterpreted her latest video — released Wednesday, recorded on Oct. 13 and 14 — as a sign that she had changed her views on death with dignity and that she had decided to ditch her plan to end her life before the cancer claimed her.

She had not.

(…)

Maynard set Nov. 1 as the tentative date for her death and then devoted her last days to her most precious joys, family and nature — hiking, bicycling, dog walking, kayaking and traveling with her husband, mother and other loved ones to Alaska, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. She preferred to focus, she said, on living. She penned an essay for TODAY.com about hard wisdom she had forged: “Pay attention to the relationships you cultivate in life, and do not miss the chance to tell those you love how very much you love them.”

Along the way, Maynard — and her choice — became the talk of the nation as she campaigned for a newfound passion, “death with dignity.” She made a video that revealed her thinking. Shedebated physicians who questioned her logic. And she conducted media interviews to explain her choice.

“I’m not killing myself. Cancer is killing me. I am choosing to go in a way that is less suffering and less pain,” Maynard told NBC News during a phone interview Oct. 9.

“Not everybody has to agree that it’s the right thing, because they don’t have to do it. And it’s an option that for me has provided a lot of relief, because the way that my brain cancer would take me organically is very terrible. It’s a horrible way to die. The thought that I can spare myself the physical and emotional lengthy pain of that, as well as my family, is a huge relief.”

She disliked the word “suicide,” calling it “highly inflammatory and just incorrect, because I am already dying from cancer. I don’t want to die. People who commit suicide are typically people who want to die.”

And she was heartened, she said, by the global dialogue her decision ignited. A YouTube video detailing her disease and final path has been viewed more than 8 million times. On her website, The Brittany Maynard Fund, she wrote: “The response from you all has surpassed our wildest expectations.”

“What does seem necessary,” she added in an interview with NBC News, “is to get people educated about this topic, to have discussions be based on facts not fear, and really have it be a health-care choice, which is what makes it a freedom.”

As I noted in my original post on Maynard’s choice, this is not an easy issue. The idea of someone who is only twenty-nine ending their life and, in the videos that we were able to see, seemingly healthy, well spoken, and even happy in some ways is something that obviously makes some people uncomfortable. Additionally, for many people this is an issue that brings to mind issues governed by religious faith, including, for some, the exceedingly weird, and to me kind of insane, idea that there is something inherently good about suffering. That, obviously, is an attitude that is largely unique to Christianity, but regardless of the source it ignores some very fundamental ideas about human freedom. Whether one likes the choice or not, it Perhaps if there was a decent chance that Maynard could have survived and gone on to live something resembling a normal life, I might find her choice more controversial. However, not only was her diagnosis confirmed by her own doctors, it was confirmed by the doctors that Oregon law required her to consult with before gaining access to the drugs she used to end her own life. At that point, it was clear that her choice was between a slow decline that consisted only of suffering for her and her loved ones, and the chance to end her life on her terms. Starting with the premise that if human freedom means anything, it means that one should have the right to control their own body, I don’t see how anyone can reach any conclusion other than the one that says that this is something that obviously ought to have been her choice and her choice alone. She could have, obviously, decided to go the other way, and that too would have been her choice. The point is, though, that it’s something that only she, along with the help, love, and support of her family and her loved ones and in consultation with her physicians should be allowed to make. Even if you don’t agree with her decision, one must accept it, and the only appropriate response is sympathy for those who cared about her and some sense of relief that she will no longer be suffering needlessly.

In some of her comments when this story first became public, Maynard said that she hoped that her story would lead to more discussion of the issue of the “right to die” and the rights of people facing terminal illness to face death on their own terms. We’ve been talking about that issue in some sense, of course, for decades. In the 1970s, cases like that of Karen Ann Quinlan dealt with the issue of whether or not a family, acting in the stead of someone who is an persistent vegetative state and lacking the kind of brain function that would exist for a human being who would have the possibility of living anything approaching a normal life to end extraordinary measures such as respirators that typically do little more than keep a heart beating even though the brain is basically dead. It was in response to those cases that the law developed to allow things such as “Living Wills,” which in the law are usually called Medical Powers of Attorney and Advance Medical Directives, which allow someone to set forth instructions about what they want to happen if they end up a situation and give the authority to someone else to make medical decisions for them if they are unable to do so. The Terry Schiavo case in the 2000s showed us what can happen when someone doesn’t have those arrangements made, especially when family members disagree on the appropriate path forward. Now, the Maynard case gives us yet another scenario to deal with, and its one that has been controversial ever since Dr. Jack Kevorkian became the somewhat unfortunate face of the “right to die” movement in the 1990s. Now, there’s Brittany Maynard. Perhaps because this is taking place at a time where a number of other stories — the elections, Ebola, and ISIS — are also grabbing the headlines, it won’t spur the kind of debate those events in the past did, but it should, because it’s an issue that we may all have to deal with at some point in the future.

Photo via NBC News

FILED UNDER: Health, 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. Guarneri says:

    May she now rest peacefully.

  2. Mikey says:

    It’s a shame she was stricken so young, but that shouldn’t have anything to do with her decision.

    I’ve a good friend who also has glioblastoma multiforme. At this point, seven months post-diagnosis and surgery, he is doing relatively well. The first course of chemotherapy and radiation was ineffective, but treatment with a relatively new drug has shrunk the tumor over 50% at last check. He’s going in for another MRI this week, and we’re all hopeful it will show continuing improvement.

    He’s very far from where Brittany Maynard was, and that’s good for right now, but I know he and his wife are considering all possible options should his situation turn drastically worse. Those of us who have been with them through this understand in the end the choice will be his, and although we would be sad, we would support him fully.

  3. @Mikey:

    I’ve a good friend who also has glioblastoma multiforme. At this point, seven months post-diagnosis and surgery, he is doing relatively well.

    And I have a family member who was diagnosed with a glioblastoma tumor. That was ten years ago at the end of this month and there was a time when it was unclear if they would make it, but they’ve been cancer free for several years and, other than an impact on vision that means the state will not issue a driver’s license and some impact on memory, it’s truly been an amazing recovery. Not everyone is that lucky, though.

  4. Mikey says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I hope my friend can experience a similar period of remission, but at this point it’s too early to tell. Right now we’re just appreciating the extra time the new drug therapy has given him and his wife. Were it not for that, he would probably not see another summer.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    I will simply repeat the comment I made on Doug’s Facebook Page: I live in the Portland area and am witnessing the standard hysteria of the bible thumpers about interfering with gawd’s will, the Catholic Church is the worst and the local Bishop is a complete A$$. RIP and I support your decision Brittany!

  6. Paul Hooson says:

    I can’t judge everyone’s situation here, or their suffering. But, a doctor had offered her $50,000 cash to give his new experimental treatment plan a try. – If you love life, it would be worth a try. But, you can’t tell which part of the brain was affected here, and reasoning could be one part. – I’m from a Jewish family background, but went to Catholic gradeschools and a nun had a brain tumor and did goofy things like physically abused me because her brain was so affected, and then she died a couple of months later from her brain tumor…I was one of few people that could see that she was acting goofy and not normal…

  7. Guarneri says:

    Advances in brain tumor treatment have been remarkable. For what’s worth, Duke is doing great work for this type.

    Separately, My sister went 7 years (as opposed to 12 months projected) without a relapse for CNS lymphoma.

  8. C. Clavin says:

    May she rest in peace.

  9. Tony W says:

    @Paul Hooson: I find your implication offensive. She made the decision months ago and to imply she was not capable of it is to infantilize her. In fact my mother too died in similar circumstances and I wish she had this choice back then.

  10. Rick DeMent says:

    What surprises me is the level of vitriol leveled at this woman by some over a decision that only effects her and her family and loved ones all of who supported her. The level of busybodyness on this issue is breath taking. Even the theology of suicide in the christian is muddy as the catholic church recognizes “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide”.

    I’m not sure why people get so worked up about it.

  11. Mikey says:

    @Tony W:

    She made the decision months ago and to imply she was not capable of it is to infantilize her.

    She didn’t make it alone, either–her husband and family were part of it. They knew her better than anyone did. They knew her illness and how it affected her, and they still supported her. I think that fact should put to rest any assertions she wasn’t of fully sound mind.

  12. Paul Hooson says:

    @Tony W: My background is in psychology, and even over the counter medications, let alone brain tumors will certainly impact a person’s entire cognitive processes. I don’t know what parts of the brain were affected, or the full extent of her suffering. She and her close family seemed satisfied with her decision, while others like me can only second guess the situation. – I’m surprised by the timing. because it appeared that she was doing pretty well and I thought may delay this for at least a few weeks to a month…

  13. stonetools says:

    Sigh.
    I support her decision, and it’s a victory for freedom, I guess, but it’s also a tragedy. Blessings and comfort to her and her family.

  14. Pinky says:

    @Rick DeMent:

    I’m not sure why people get so worked up about it.

    Because it was a cowardly act of murder that’s being treated like a good deed, and held up as a model that will encourage others to kill themselves.

  15. jd says:

    God opened the door to the abyss. Brittany bravely stepped through.

  16. SenyorDave says:

    @Pinky: cowardly act of murder

    I can imagine disagreeing with the action on several grounds (I personally have no problem with this woman’s decision), but to call it cowardly? Can you tell us on what basis you consider her actions cowardly?

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    @Pinky:

    Because it was a cowardly act of murder that’s being treated like a good deed, and held up as a model that will encourage others to kill themselves.

    You’re entitled to that opinion. However individual liberty means the right to decide what is best for one’s self, and so I think it unwise to judge another in that regard.

  18. Tony W says:

    @SenyorDave: Let me guess – pants-wetting Fear of Everything (TM). It’s the conservative way.

  19. Mikey says:

    @Pinky:

    cowardly

    Yeah, she should have bravely endured the weeks of inconceivably awful suffering and eventually died of starvation and dehydration, but not before being reduced to a drooling, gibbering invalid. What a hero she would have been, right?

    Screw you, buddy, and the horse that bravely endured carrying you here.

  20. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Pinky:

    That’s a pretty despicable way of treating someone who was facing an incredibly hard decision.

    I pray you never have to face the same decision. If you do, I hope–if needed–you have the bravery to take the “cowards” way.

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    A buddy of mine’s father had lung cancer. After a long and terrible illness of unending pain, drugs, and machines, my buddy came home and found his father’s brains splattered all over the wall.

    RIP Brittany, your final gift to your loved ones was a peaceful death.

  22. Anonne says:

    @Pinky: Until you have to care for someone with an advanced brain tumor, please have a can of SHUT THE F*CK UP.

    You have no idea what it is like, for her or for the family. Have you ever witnessed someone having a grand mal seizure? It’s violent, scary, and looks like they are about to die right then. Now imagine them coming in a rapid series. It is torture to watch and beyond torture to endure.

    And that’s just part of the package. Depending on where her tumor is, it might take her movement and eyesight before she went. That happened to a family member of mine, who struggled with it for 18 years. On and off with one long period of remission, surgery after surgery, radiation, chemo, just about every treatment under the sun, including some targeted treatment in a clinical trial. At the end, he just wanted to be done with it and stop fighting. He was tired, and only acceded to treatment because we who would remain behind wanted it so badly – a sliver of hope that, in the end, was not meant to be. The last 2 years of his life were hell. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, even you, for being as big of an asshole as you just were.

  23. michael reynolds says:

    Our lives are a story we write each day. Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. We have the same right to write the end as we did the early and middle parts.

    She had an impact on the world. She nudged civilization infinitesimally toward greater liberty and responsibility. So, it was a short story, not a full-length novel, but she nailed the ending and did some good. Few of us will do as much.

  24. OzarkHillbilly says:
  25. anjin-san says:

    I took care of my dad while he was dying from a brain tumor. It is completely understandable that someone would want to short circuit that process. To deny someone the ability to do so seems like the height of cruelty to me.

    A persons life is their own. It does not belong to the government, religious organizations, or the court of public opinion.

  26. grumpy realist says:

    @Pinky: “Cowardly act of murder”?

    You really have no idea, do you? Nor do you seem to be able to read your own writings. At common law, murder was defined as killing another human being with malice aforethought. Pray tell me how the elements of murder exist here?

  27. KM says:

    @Pinky:

    Cowardly act of murder

    She owed you and the world absolutely nothing. Screw you and your “standards” that you would define an ill woman as cowardly. Does it make you feel like a big person, mocking someone who was in such pain and misery that they decided their best option was to say no more? Does it make you feel “heroic” to look down on someone who looked death in the face, and instead of cowering in fear like the little child you seem to be, took the Reaper’s hand and said “Let’s go!” We should all be so brave. Too many fear the undiscovered country – this woman wrote her own itinerary.

  28. MBunge says:

    @michael reynolds: She nudged civilization infinitesimally toward greater liberty and responsibility.

    Or toward a world where people are, even if only implicitly, encouraged to kill themselves when they no longer meet a standard of worthiness that will often be set by society and not the individual.

    I think you’d have to be a sick freak to take much issue with this woman’s personal decision.

    It is not at all unreasonable to be concerned over the establishment of a legal and practical framework for normalizing and enabling suicide.

    Mike

  29. grumpy realist says:

    @MBunge: Both the Japanese and the Romans had a “legal and practical framework for normalizing and enabling suicide.” Doesn’t seem to have stopped them from very vigorous impacts on history.

    P.S. If you want to do some good with the NO NO NO SUICIDE BAD concept, I suggest you move to the Mideast and try to impact some would-be suicide bombers. Ragging on a terminally ill woman isn’t that productive, it seems to me….

  30. KM says:

    @MBunge :

    It is not at all unreasonable to be concerned over the establishment of a legal and practical framework for normalizing and enabling suicide.

    You do realize that great civilizations throughout time have done that and still do, right? That this is not a new thing but rather our culture having to deal with an issue we’ve long ignored?

    As a culture that values freedom above all else, the freedom to decide when you live and when you die as yours alone is right up there. Your life is your own, full stop. Now, the government is telling you it has the right to tell you NO. Think about that – the government has the power/control over something as fundamental as your death in a way you would never tolerate in any other aspect of your life. We fear governments that wield the power of life and death like that, call them despotic and tyrannical & spend billions trying to take them down in the name of freedom. Yet we casually accept this prohibition as ironclad because it never occurs to us what we’ve lost till we need it. Is not something infinitely more precious when its owned rather then rented? The overwhelming majority will never take up this right, just like all the other rights they have and don’t actively exercise or even think about. Still, a right delayed is a right denied – that’s not the American way.

  31. anjin-san says:

    We should also keep in mind that a lot of resistance to the right to die movement comes from the medical & convalescent care industries. They want to drain people financially before they die. What a charming motive…

  32. Monala says:

    I think the responses to Pinky here are on-target, but to MBunge a bit over the top. I don’t think MBunge is saying that society can’t still function successfully if right to die becomes law all over the U.S. I think there is a legitimate concern that strong safeguards are always in place so that those who are most vulnerable, particularly the elderly and the poor, aren’t pressured or coerced when their care becomes difficult or costly.

  33. Gustopher says:

    @Paul Hooson: I recall reading that she wanted to make the decision while she was still capable of it, and while she was still herself (you’re very correct that brain tumors can change someone). And, you may be mistaking someone who is young and attractive for someone who is healthier than they are.

    I am glad we have some states where she didn’t have to suffer through the whole decline. My heart goes out to her and her family, and especially that very cute dog.

  34. Rick DeMent says:

    @Pinky:

    Because it was a cowardly act of murder that’s being treated like a good deed, and held up as a model that will encourage others to kill themselves.

    Ah apparently you don’t know that murder is a legal term and you clearly don’t understand what it means.

  35. KM says:

    @Monala:

    but to MBunge a bit over the top.

    Trying to make a point (no matter how good) by calling someone a “sick freak” isn’t going to win converts. Yes, society has an obligation to protect those it can from they who would prey on them – I highly doubt any of us here would object to that. His post however was poorly-phrased. The overwhelming negativity wasn’t a “we should protect the weak” tone but rather “society is evil/ manipulative therefore we shouldn’t have this right”. Along the lines of “But think of the children!!!” – that logic can be applied to so many things you’d be horrified to lose rights to. The “weak” have rights too – we need to be careful to tread the line between keeping the vultures back and going all in loco parentis for their perceived good (another way rights can be denied).

    The moral is don’t let your message get drowned out by unfortunate words.

  36. Pinky says:

    @KM: I think you misread the comment. I think that MBunge was calling me a sick freak, not her.

  37. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @anjin-san: In fairness to the medical and convalescent care industries, it was the doctors who declined to honor my mother’s request for additional treatment for my father who had been dying slowly over the previous 5 years. I realize that such self-sacrifice on the part of the medical profession may be uncommon, but sometimes they get it right.

    And their insurance would have payed for the whole treatment, too.

  38. anjin-san says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker:

    I’m glad you have a better story to tell than I did. My grandfather was resuscitated after his second stroke, in spite of the clearly stated wishes in his advance directive. He lived for 6 more miserable months, very embittered. The people who owned the convalescent hospital made an extra 60K or so, money that was not there for my grandmother when she needed it.

  39. Tony W says:

    @KM:

    Still, a right delayed is a right denied – that’s not the American way.

    Sadly, you are wrong.

    We Americans have a rich tradition of delaying fundamental rights for decades or longer. As Michael says, perhaps Brittany nudges us closer to shortening that delay for others.

  40. Mikey says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker: The same was true of my father, although it wasn’t cancer that killed him, but a degenerative brain disease.

    He’d have these incidents where his body temperature would drop precipitously and my brother would rush him to the hospital where he’d stay for a week, get treated, get better, and go home.

    There came a point when the doctors just said “you know, if he has another episode, you could just keep him comfortable until he passes on…it’s up to you, of course…”

    We all knew the end was inevitable, and soon, but it was still far more difficult than I thought it would be, basically signing off on allowing him to die.

    In the end, he never had another episode–he passed peacefully in his sleep, two years ago next Wednesday.

  41. grumpy realist says:

    @Mikey: May he rest in peace.

    My father also died peacefully in his sleep, which was a great load off me. I had been nerving myself up to months of “life-saving” efforts and my having to finally tell them to literally pull the plug.

    From what I heard later, it looked like the hospital treated him like he was in hospice. Making him feel comfortable but nothing beyond that.