Death with Dignity Advocate Brittany Maynard Ended Her Life

Death with Dignity Advocate Brittany Maynard Ended Her Life Saturday (November 1, 2014)

Brittany Maynard, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer had months to live, and at an interview said that she would prefer to die with less pain and less suffering; she left the following message on Facebook:

“Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love,” she wrote. “Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me … but would have taken so much more. The world is a beautiful place, travel has been my greatest teacher, my close friends and folks are the greatest givers. I even have a ring of support around my bed as I type … Goodbye world. Spread good energy. Pay it forward!”

Brittany’s obituary begins with:

“One Day Your Life Will Flash Before Your Eyes, Make Sure it’s Worth Watching”

Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act “allows terminally-ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose.”

Since it was enacted in 1997, “more than 750 people in Oregon used the law to die as of Dec. 31, 2013. The median age of the deceased is 71. Only six were younger than 35, like Maynard.”

See Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act – 2013:

In addition to Oregon, Washington and Vermont have enacted Death with Dignity Laws:

Washington (2008):

Vermont (2013):

And more on Oregon:

Montana has legal physician-assisted suicide via court ruling:

There does seem to be growing support. Bills have been introduced in several states: Connecticut; Hawaii; Kansas; Massachusetts; New Hampshire; New Jersey; Pennsylvania. For a very recent update – October, 29, 2014 – see:

Looks to be moving forward in New Jersey:

See the Assembly Bill:

A May, 2013 Gallup poll showed support for physician-assisted end of life, but far less when the patient is assisted by a physician (i.e. “doctor-assisted suicide”):

In the same month that Vermont became the fourth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, a May 2-7 Gallup survey finds 70% of Americans in favor of allowing doctors to hasten a terminally ill patient’s death when the matter is described as allowing doctors to “end the patient’s life by some painless means.” At the same time, far fewer — 51% — support it when the process is described as doctors helping a patient “commit suicide.”

Where does New York fit in? A tough penalty indeed:

  • 125.15 Manslaughter in the second degree.

The relevant portion is:

  1. He intentionally causes or aids another person to commit suicide.

A Death with Dignity Act was introduced into the New York State Assembly on February 22, 2012:

A very detailed Historical Timeline is available here:

History of Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide

What about euthanasia and Hispanics? The following article notes opposition:

Data taken from the state of Oregon between the years of 1998 and 2010 strongly indicates that almost every person to opt for physician assisted suicide in Oregon has been Caucasian (of the total 525 cases, 514 have been Caucasian). The Oregon population is 83.6% Caucasian so these results do not match the population distribution. This could lead one to assume that in other racial groups there might be motives for rejecting the practice of physician assisted suicide. Oregon’s current population is 11.7% Hispanic. Only .4% of the participants of physician assisted suicide were Hispanic so it becomes apparent that per capita Hispanics are not opting for physician assisted suicide at the same rate as other racial groups (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). The question one must ask in response to this data is why this number is so much lower than expected. This discrepancy could possibly be explained by looking at the religious profile of the Hispanic population in America.

More than 90% of the Spanish-speaking world identifies as Roman Catholic and this religious affiliation carries over to the Hispanic population in the United States (Clutter and Ruben). The Catholic Church’s public stand on euthanasia and physician assisted suicide maintains that both are the moral equivalent to murder. It is considered murder not only on the part of the physician assisting with the act but additionally on the part of the person who is essentially committing suicide.

This study, however, provides a different perspective. Here is the abstract:

Physician-assisted Suicide Attitudes of Older Mexican-American and Non-Hispanic White Adults: Does Ethnicity Make a Difference?

Little is known about attitudes toward physician-assisted suicide (PAS) in various ethnic groups. This study compares attitudes held by older Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic whites and examines subject characteristics that may influence their responses. A convenience sample of 100 older Mexican Americans and 108 non-Hispanic whites (n=208) aged 60 to 89 were recruited from four primary care community-based practice sites in San Antonio, Texas. Interview items measured attitudes toward PAS, cognitive status, functional status, and religiosity.

Older Mexican Americans (52.7%) reported stronger agreement than non-Hispanic whites (33.7%) with PAS. Male sex (odds ratio (OR)=2.62, 95% confidence interval (CI)=1.09–6.35) predicted agreement with legalization in Mexican Americans, whereas lower religiosity scores (OR=0.84, 95% CI=0.75–0.94) were predictive of agreement in older non-Hispanic whites.

This study is the first to find positive attitudes among community-dwelling older Mexican Americans toward PAS that are higher than those of older non-Hispanic white adults. Sex and religious views were important determinants of positive attitudes toward PAS. Larger, more-generalizable studies should be conducted to confirm the attitudinal patterns that have been identified in this study.

As psychologists and mental health professionals, what are your thoughts about a Death with Dignity Act, and what experiences have you had with patients in the throes of despair and suffering facing terminal illness (their own or perhaps loved ones)? And how does culture fit in?




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