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Bioethicist: Brittany Maynard's Death Was an Ethical Choice

The question many are now asking is whether Brittany Maynard did something unethical. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan says she did not.

Brittany Maynard is dead. The vivacious 29-year old newlywed with the horrific, lethal brain tumor ended her own life by taking an overdose of barbiturates prescribed by a physician in Oregon.

She did nothing illegal. Oregon has had a law permitting the terminally ill to request a prescription of lethal drugs for 17 years. The question many are now asking is whether she did something unethical.

The main arguments against permitting doctors to assist the terminally ill to die on their own terms are that it is not our place to decide when we will die — only God should do so; that allowing assisted suicide will inevitably lead to abuses, especially of the poor and disabled; that there are better choices for the dying in the form of hospice and palliative care, and that doctors should not kill.

None of these arguments is persuasive. And if that is so, Brittany Maynard did nothing immoral when she took a lethal dose of pills.

The argument that only God may decide when we die is not one that I consider consistent with the view that God created us with free choice. If you seek out medical care, you are making choices about how long you will live. If you drive too fast, drink too much, smoke to much or fail to get your kids vaccinated, then you are making decisions about how soon death comes. To see God as having to work through respirators, kidney dialysis and heart-lung machines to decide when you will die is to trivialize the divine.

Nor have there been abuses in Oregon or the other state that has had legalized physician assistance in dying for many years — Washington. There is no movement to change the laws in these states. There are no scandals revealed by police or media investigations of people being coerced or shamed into ending their lives. In fact, the loudest voices alleging abuses and worrying about slippery slopes come from those who do not live in either state. Both Oregon and Washington have strict restrictions on who can get lethal medicines. Those restrictions seems to have acted as handrails adequate to prohibit sliding down slippery slopes to abuse.

Hospice and palliative care should be offered to any terminally ill person. Sadly, that is not always available in America, but both Oregon and Washington have made great strides to ensure that they are in those states. Interestingly, fewer than 1 in 500 terminally ill Oregonians ask for pills and a third of those never take them.

Doctors should not kill their patients. But under Oregon and Washington law, the patient has to ask for the pills and take them. Brittany Maynard — not her doctor — chose a lethal dose of medicine.

If I am right and there is a case to be made for the morality of assisted dying for those who are competent, terminally ill and who reject hospice as an option, then will Brittany’s death result in a bigger push to legalize death with dignity in other states? I think so.

Brittany shifted the optics of the debate over physician-assisted suicide. A topic of keen interest to the middle-aged and elderly suddenly got on the radar of those under 35. If they engage the subject as they did laws banning the use of marijuana and gay marriage, then Brittany may well have the legacy she wanted — greater access for others to the choice she made for herself.