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The Right To Die: A Coming Generational Shift?


Source: | Original Post Date: November 9, 2014 –


Last weekend, Brittany Maynard died quietly and peacefully, surrounded by friends and family in a small house in Portland, Oregon. The 29-year-old, who suffered from terminal brain cancer and had a finite time left to live, had recently moved from her home in California to Oregon, where she could die with dignity—on her own terms—thanks to the state’s 1997 Death with Dignity Act. In the media and on social networking sites, however, Maynard’s death has been anything but quiet.

Following her death on Nov. 1, Maynard’s story became even more explosive than it already was: she became the most-searched topic on Google; a trending topic on Twitter; and the video explaining her decision has nearly 11.5 million views to date. People magazine, which first broke the story on Oct. 6, garnered more than 16.1 million unique viewers of the story reporting her death, with nearly 54 million people sharing it on Facebook—a record for the publication. Editorials bent right and left abounded.

The reaction was and is decidedly strong, but it comes as no surprise. In an age of trend topics, stories like Maynard’s can become intensely divisive overnight, calling up deeply held belief systems and pitting them against one another. Charged issues that wrestle with notions of ethics and morals, like abortion and physician-assisted suicide, often contend in an especially heated arena.

Given its wide publicity, Maynard’s story is poised to reignite the national right-to-die debate in a meaningful way, and likely to set off discussion among a younger, politically and socially active audience. So far, the debate has evolved in two ways: on one side, conservatives and religious groups have taken a predictable slippery slope stance, which portends abuse of a system that lifts the potential financial burden of dying a long, expensive death in hospice or other palliative care. Others have taken semantic issues with what it means to die “with dignity.”

“Moral outrage is appropriate and needed to fix the sorry state of dying in America,” wrote Ira Byock, chief medical officer of the Institute for Human Caring of Providence Health and Services in a New York Times op-ed. “[but] legalizing assisted suicide fixes nothing. The principle that doctors must not kill patients stands,” he added.

On a deeper level, critics are concerned that a younger generation that has already taken strides in shifting attitudes about gay marriage and marijuana use will latch on to Maynard’s story and the right-to-die issue. It doesn’t help that Maynard was “young, vivacious, attractive,” and “a very different kind of person from the average middle-aged or older person who has to confront issues about terminal illness,” argued Art Caplan of the Division of Medical Ethics and New York University. She “changes the optics of the debate,” he continued.

On the other side, Maynard and her message has been celebrated. “I hope for the sake of my fellow American citizens that I’ll never meet that this option is available to you,” she wrote on CNN. It’s safe to say that the majority of coverage so far has lauded Maynard for her bravery, resolve, and activism in the weeks and months leading up to her death.

According to a Pew Research survey from last year, public opinion was more or less split on the issue. But a Gallup poll suggested results varied depending on the phrasing: Some 70 percent of Americans supported allowing physicians to “end the patient’s life by some painless means,” while only 51 percent supported doctors helping patients “commit suicide.”

While year-old polls gave relatively mixed results, and while we wait for new research to emerge, for now, the positive tone of the coverage could signal a shift in generational acceptance of practice and support for a woman and her family faced with an unimaginable, excruciating situation. “I made my decisions based on my wishes, clinical research, choices, discussions with physicians, and logic,”Maynard wrote on her blog. “I am not depressed or suicidal or on a ‘slippery slope.’ I have been in charge of this choice, gaining control of a terrifying terminal disease through the application of my own humane logic.” And it seems that it’s that same humane logic that might win out in the end.

There are only three states currently—Oregon, Vermont, and Washington—that have death-with-dignity laws. Montana and New Mexico have court rulings to protect physicians who give out lethal prescriptions to requesting patients. Seven other states have introduced bills, and it’s likely that we’ll see more in the coming years. Maynard wished for a meaningful and lasting legacy. And given what we’ve seen so far, she may very well get what she asked for.

Written by Alex Mierjeski of