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US woman galvanizes right-to-die efforts

November 4, 2014

PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) — A young woman’s last days has sparked a national conversation about whether it’s right for a terminally ill person to end his or her own life.

Now that Brittany Maynard has died, it’s time to see whether the millions of clicks and views she generated online trigger more than just talk.

Advocates for expanding right-to-die laws beyond a handful of states expect attention from her story to carry into the new year, when state legislatures go into session.

“I think on both coasts we’re going to see legislative action,” said Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center.

That optimism will be met with the political reality that such legislation has been pushed for years, often unsuccessfully.

“Suicide is never a good solution, regardless of the situation that one is confronting,” said Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, a Catholic group.

Oregon was the first U.S. state to make it legal for a doctor to prescribe a life-ending drug to a terminally ill patient. Through June 30, just over 800 people had used the law since it took effect shortly after the November 1997 election.

Maynard, terminally ill with brain cancer, grabbed the spotlight in America for about a month after publicizing that she and her husband, Dan Diaz, moved to Portland from Northern California so she could use Oregon’s law to end her life on her own terms. Maynard told journalists she planned to die Nov. 1 and followed through Saturday. She was 29.

Her suicide didn’t go unnoticed overseas. The Vatican’s top bioethics official, Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, condemned the act, calling it “reprehensible.”

Maynard approached the advocacy group Compassion & Choices this summer in hopes that telling her story would lead to political action in California and across the U.S. Whether that happens is an open question. But Maynard succeeded in raising awareness about an issue that was trending on Facebook and Twitter after her death.

“Younger people support death with dignity at really high levels, but it’s not necessarily relevant or salient to their lives,” Sandeen said. “I think the Brittany Maynard story makes it real.”

Vermont last year became the first state to legalize aid in dying through legislation. Oregon and Washington did so by referendum, and it was effectively legalized through court decisions in Montana and New Mexico.

In New Jersey, the state Assembly considered but failed to pass an aid-in-dying bill in June. Democratic Assemblyman John Burzichelli, who authored the bill, said he is hopeful it can pass the state’s lower chamber before the end of the year. If that happens, he expects the Senate to pass it soon after.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie has said he opposes the measure.

Compassion & Choice is spending about $7 million a year to protect the practice in states where it has been authorized and passing legislation in states where it has not, said Mickey MacIntyre, the group’s chief program officer.

The group said its website has had more than 5 million unique visitors over the past month, while Maynard’s two videos have been viewed more than 13 million times on YouTube alone.

Not everyone who viewed the videos is a fan. Social conservatives have sharply criticized Maynard’s decision, and it’s unlikely any Republican-controlled legislatures will consider right-to-die laws.

Maynard’s relatives asked for privacy Monday and have not released information about funeral arrangements. A spokesman for Compassion & Choices said she died peacefully, surrounded by family and friends in her Portland home.


Ben Neary contributed from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Michael Catalini contributed from Trenton, New Jersey.


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