A humane way to end life

Deborah Ziegler holds a photo of her daughter, Brittany Maynard, with her husband Gary Holmes after the California Senate passed a bill allowing physicians to assist in the death of terminally ill patients.


LESS THAN a month before she died, Brittany Maynard posted a video explaining her decision to move to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s law allowing terminally ill people to end their own lives. Maynard, 29, had been diagnosed with an aggressive and terminal brain cancer and said she wanted to die on her own terms. “I hope to pass in peace,” she said. Her video, viewed more than 9 million times in the first month, and her death, after she ingested medication prescribed by a doctor, helped fuel a national movement for “death with dignity.”

In addition to Oregon, four other states — Washington, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana — allow physicians to provide aid in dying. After Ms. Maynard’s death in November, lawmakers in more than 20 states and the District — backed by advocates Compassion and Choices, and the Death with Dignity National Center — introduced end-of-life legislation. In many cases, the bills are pending; in states where they didn’t advance, including Maryland, lawmakers vowed to try again. A recent Gallup poll showed nearly seven in 10 Americans agree that terminally ill adults should have the right to medical assistance in bringing about a peaceful death.

Closely watched are events in California. Ms. Maynard lived there before moving to Oregon and in her final days she videotaped a plea to lawmakers to adopt a law similar to Oregon’s and lobbied California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) by phone. After the state medical association recently dropped its long-standing opposition, a measure passed the state Senate and is set for a hearing this month in the lower house; a lawsuit — a route successfully used in New Mexico and Montana — also is being pressed with the claim that both the state constitution and existing state law allow the medical practice of aid in dying.

Meanwhile, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) has sponsored a bill modeled on Oregon’s law for the nation’s capital. That has the potential to bring Congress into the debate.

The issue stirs strong emotions. Some opponents, including the Catholic Church, cite religious or moral grounds, seeing any form of assisted dying as anathema to teachings that life is never to be taken. Some physicians believe the practice violates their oath only to heal, and some disability rights activists fear that they will be vulnerable to abuses. Others warn of a slippery slope to euthanasia.

Oregon’s 18 years of experience do not confirm any of these fears. Enacted in 1997, Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act allows terminally ill adults who are residents of the state to obtain and use prescriptions from their physicians for self-administered lethal doses. Stringent protections include a life expectancy of less than six months, a finding of mental capability, a concurring opinion from a second doctor, mandatory discussion of hospice and other options, waiting periods and more.

Oregonians have made sparing use of the law, with 859 deaths as of Feb. 2 . The state collects data on each case, and there have been no reports of coerced or wrongly qualified assisted deaths. The typical patient is about 71, suffering from terminal cancer, well-educated, with health insurance and enrolled in hospice. About one-third of prescriptions were never used, suggesting some terminally ill people are comforted by knowing they have an alternative to extensive suffering should they need it.

Such suffering has been described by Diane Rehm, the WAMU-FM radio host. Her husband, incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease and without an Oregon-style option, starved himself to death over an agonizing 10 days. Barbara Blalock, a Rockville doctor, said at a joint Maryland legislative committee hearing that she has had patients ask, “Is there a way that we can avoid intolerable suffering at the end of life?” Dr. Blalock said she often has to say no, “and I always felt as a physician I was failing them in some way.” Ms. Maynard said of her decision: “I do not want to die. But I am dying. And I want to die on my own terms.”

Death with dignity laws need to be carefully thought out, written and monitored. Oregon and the states that followed its example show that such care is possible. We hope the rest of the nation catches up with this humane option for life’s end.
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