Brittany Maynard re-kindled the debate on assisted suicide – also called aid in dying – in the United States. The poignancy of her death one year ago Sunday continues to be felt today. Those in favour of assisted suicide for terminally ill patients are celebrating the recent change in California’s legislation as their first major success, and they hope more states will follow. Opponents worry that it will invite misuse that could endanger the lives of disabled people.
Almost exactly one year after Brittany Maynard’s suicide, her final wish has been fulfilled: a law that was passed last month in California, her home state, allows terminally ill patients to end their lives themselves with the assistance of a doctor.
In other US states public opinion on the issue of aid in dying, more commonly known as assisted suicide, is changing. Since the death of the 29-year-old Maynard, who had terminal brain cancer, bills to change the law on the issue have been introduced in half of the United States’ 50 states.
Maynard’s fate made global headlines in part because she had to move to Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal for several years, in order for her wishes to be carried out. With the organization Compassion & Choices, she published a video message to campaign for the legalization of aid in dying. The video was viewed millions of times and shared widely on the Internet.
Until California passed the new legislation, physician-assisted suicide was only legal in the United States in the states of Vermont, Washington, Montana and Oregon. Maynard died in Oregon on November 1, 2014, after taking a dose of lethal drugs.
For the movement Compassion & Choices, recent developments in California, which has a population of more than 38 million people, are historic. According to spokesman Nicholas Simmonds, the new law could become a turning point matching what he perceives as a change of mind in public opinion.
In May, a poll by Gallup showed that 68 per cent of the population of the United States supported the right of terminally ill patients to end their lives. That implied a 20-percentage-point increase within two years.
And yet, despite this change, the so-called End of Life Options Law faced some opposition in California, as it has elsewhere. Similar initiatives have already failed in the states of Colorado and Connecticut.
Beyond the Roman Catholic Church, the organization Disability Rights California, which campaigns for the rights of disabled people, was among the prominent opposition to the proposed change in legislation.
According to Disability Rights California board member Jennifer Restle, the issue is not whether everyone should choose for themselves.
“The law simply offers patients too little support,” Restle said.
There are insufficient guarantees to prevent the misuse of fatal medication or coercion to force a suicide, said Deborah Doctor, the organization’s lawyer.
“The people we’re worried about are not Brittany Maynard. They are other people in a worse situation,” Doctor said.
Critics fear that relatives of terminally ill patients could persuade them to end their lives.
Maynard’s husband, Dan Diaz, has heard the arguments and still continues to campaign for aid in dying in the United States.
“Brittany wanted to see legislation in all states,” he told talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.
Simmonds said Diaz committed to Brittany that he would continue the fight in honour of her wishes.
For Compassion & Choices spokesman Sean Crowley, Maynard’s story remains highly relevant.
“Brittany changed everything,” Crowley said.
Her death unleashed a wave of 25 initiatives across the country to change the law on aid in dying. The previous year there had been only one.
Still, proponents of medically assisted suicide still have a lot of work to do. With the addition of California as the fifth state where people legally have access to assisted suicide, it’s far from the entire country.
“Fifteen per cent of the American population has access to a range of choices for end of life. So it’s a long way to go. This can take a couple of decades,” Simmonds warned.