Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Talking about death can be done with dignity

    Dying is a completely personal act, usually done in private. One young woman chose to make her dying a public matter in order to generate conversations too rarely held about this difficult subject.
     Brittany Maynard was newly married and 29 when she received her death sentence. A particularly nasty form of brain cancer would kill her in a few months, but not before it caused great suffering and took her mental faculties. She and her husband moved to Oregon, obtained a prescription for a lethal combination of drugs available because of that state’s Death with Dignity law, and began to live day to day until the day she said, “No more.” That day was Nov. 1.
    Maynard blogged about her choice, her reasoning, and her journey in the hopes, she said, of generating the political will to expand the right to choose death with dignity across the country. Trending social media indicates she succeeded in at least raising the volume on the issue.
    Defining terms is important for these conversations. Death with dignity is a narrowly drawn set of rules and procedure for hastening one’s own death. It is currently legal in Washington, Montana, New Mexico and Vermont, as well as Oregon. It’s different than suicide, which is the act of ending the life of someone who would not otherwise die. While suicide is not illegal in any of the 50 states, assisting in a suicide is. Euthanasia is essentially the act of killing someone who has given permission for it to happen and is never legal in the U.S.
    Maynard appeared in a CBS interview in mid-October to explain that the death with dignity option in Oregon allowed her the peace of mind of knowing she could control how her life would end. She pointed out that she was not choosing to end her life. The cancer made that choice. She was just choosing when and how that end would actually come.
    The question of whether lethal prescriptions can be obtained, and under what circumstances, is a matter for each state’s legislature. Whether one would actually ask for such a prescription, or use it even if they did ask, is a choice for each individual to make.
     Brittany Maynard’s choice is likely to move the death with dignity conversations higher on public agendas across the nation. She and her family are owed a great deal of credit for demonstrating what those conversations actually look like when they are held with dignity.

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