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  • Writer's pictureDavid Manes

Death with Dignity Laws

A 29-year old California native is making headlines for her courageous act of raising awareness to expand Death with Dignity Laws across the United States. Brittany Maynard (“Ms. Maynard”) was diagnosed with an aggressive, fatal form of brain cancer earlier this year. On New Year’s Day (2013), after months of suffering from debilitating headaches, Ms. Maynard learned she had brain cancer – stage 4 glioblastoma. Three months later, after undergoing surgery, she found out her brain tumor had grown massively. In April 2014, physicians gave her six months to live.

Ms. Maynard, realizing she had very few choices, decided to relocate from the San Francisco, California to Portland, Oregon, in order to access Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law. One might ask what is a Death with Dignity Law?

Death with Dignity Laws authorize the medical practice of assisted death. This Law generally offers mentally competent, terminally ill adults with less than six months to live the option to request a prescription for medication they can self-administer to end their dying process if it becomes unbearable. Like any law, the Death with Dignity Law has strict requirements and added protections for all individuals seeking to use it.

To be eligible, an individual must be: (1) 18 years of age or older, (2) a resident of a state that has a Death with Dignity Law, (3) capable of making and communicating health care decisions for him/herself and (4) diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months. Two physicians must determine whether these criteria have been met.

Most Death with Dignity Laws also have a strict timeline that give added protection to individuals. Most Death with Dignity Laws require: (1) an oral request to the individual’s physician, (2) 15 day waiting period, (3) a second oral request to the individual’s physician, (4) a written request to the individual’s physician (the request is witnessed by two individuals who are not the primary care givers or family members) and (5) a 48 hour waiting period before the individual can pick up the prescribed medications. This strict timeline gives the individual plenty of time to reconsider their choice.

Which states have Death with Dignity Laws?

Very few states in the U.S. offer Death with Dignity Laws. In addition to the state of Oregon, only four other states (Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico) have Death with Dignity Laws. Organizations such as, Compassion & Choices, are currently campaigning to authorize Death with Dignity Laws in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Ms. Maynard is advocating, along with Compassion & Choices, for more states to enact Death with Dignity Laws. She is using her story to bring awareness to this cause. Ms. Maynard has issued dozens of statements concerning her choice to utilize the Death with Dignity Law in Oregon. Ms. Maynard has said, “there is not a cell in my body that is suicidal or that wants to die. I want to live. I wish there was a cure for my disease but there’s not.” In advocating for Death with Dignity Laws, she has also stated, “my glioblastoma is going to kill me, and that’s out of my control. I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. Being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.” Ms. Maynard’s husband also advocates for the Death with Dignity Law. He issued a statement stating, “between suffering or being allowed to decide when enough is enough … it provides a lot of relief and comfort that [the death-with-dignity] option is there if and when … she decides that it’s time.”

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