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Bioethicist: Why Brittany Maynard Changes the Right-to-Die Debate

Image: Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard in 2013. Maynard, who has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, has chosen to end her life with doctor-assisted suicide. Compassion & Choices - www.TheBrittanyFund.org

If you are a critic of efforts in the U.S. to extend the right to assistance in dying to more states your worst nightmare has just appeared in the glow of a huge media explosion.

Brittany Maynard is partnering with the old warhorse nonprofit Compassion & Choices to lobby states to adopt legislation that would let you receive a lethal dose of pills if two physicians state that you are terminally ill and neither depressed nor incompetent.

Why This 29-Year-Old Newlywed Is Choosing to End Her Life 2:23

Brittany is 29, newly wed, attractive, articulate and terminally ill. She has a highly aggressive, fast-growing brain tumor that will probably end her life in less than six months. She has suddenly become the new, self-proclaimed face for the right to die.

The battle over the legalization of what is known as assisted suicide by critics or assistance in dying by proponents has been as ferocious as any that has divided America in the past two decades of the culture wars. But how we die has been an issue mainly fought out by the elderly, some patient advocacy groups for the severely ill, disability organizations, pro-life groups, religious organizations and health care providers. Most of the combatants are middle aged or older. Few are especially photogenic. They have been sparring with one another for a very long time.

Into the fray comes Brittany — vivacious, talkative, and impassioned. She is telling the world that she moved to Oregon from California in order to die on her own terms. Oregon was the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide 14 years ago. She thinks California and the other 46 states that do not have a law like Oregon’s — Washington and Vermont do — ought to enact one quickly.

She is all over the media telling her story, hugging her dog and showing off her wedding photos. Those who might never have wanted to go near the subject of dying, especially young people, are listening. Intently. A host friend at CNN told me that Brittany’s Web postings and her personal writings have set social media ablaze with positive traffic. The mainstream media cannot give too much coverage to the young woman with a time bomb in her head who has announced her plan to end her life shortly after her husband’s next birthday.

Brittany’s story is heart-wrenching. The tragedy of her facing death at such a young age is beyond words. And she certainly is well within her rights to face death by demanding that she have control over its timing and that others have that opportunity if they want it as well.

Brittany Maynard: Dying With Dignity Provides 'Sense of Relief' 6:30

If you are an old participant in the right-to-die wars like me, it is quickly evident that there are no new arguments in anything Brittany has to say. Nor do her critics have anything novel to offer. Oregon and Washington have had legalized and highly restricted physician-assisted suicide for many years. The toughest critics of these laws do not live in either state. There is absolutely no movement to change the laws among locals because of abuse, misuse or dissatisfaction. Relatively few dying people in either state actually request pills. Even fewer, maybe two-thirds of requesters, actually take them.

Still, a whole new generation is now looking at Brittany and wondering why their state does not permit physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to the dying. Brittany is having and will have a big impact on the movement to get measures before voters or legislators.

She may not be bringing any new arguments into the controversy, but she is bringing a whole new crowd of concerned younger people into the discussion. Those who have followed the elimination of laws against homosexuality and homosexual marriage know what that means. Brittany is going to leave behind a very big legacy.