One Woman's Quest to Die With Dignity—and What It Means for Us All

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Photo courtesy of The Brittany Maynard Fund

Yesterday, a 29-year-old woman announced that she — not the rare tumor in her brain — is going to end her life on Nov. 1.

Her goal is to raise awareness about a growing “dying with dignity” movement that gives terminally ill people the right to choose when they take their final breath.

Related: Right-to-Die Bill Passed by California Lawmakers

In an online video campaign with advocacy organization Compassion & Choices, Brittany Maynard tells her story: Debilitating headaches, which started right after her wedding, eventually led to her being diagnosed with stage IV glioblastoma multiforme, a fast-growing brain cancer that usually kills its victims in a matter of months.

“My glioblastoma is going to kill me, and that’s out of my control,” she told People magazine in an exclusive interview. “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.”

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After exploring and weighing the options available to her, Maynard and her husband decided to move from San Francisco to Portland, Ore., where she would have access to Oregon's Death With Dignity Act (DWDA). Passed in 1997, the law “allows terminally ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose.”

According the most recent data 1,173 people have had DWDA prescriptions written, and 752 patients have died from ingesting medications prescribed under the DWDA. To qualify under DWDA, a person has to be a mentally competent adult and a resident of the state of Oregon.

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“The goal is to give people who are terminally ill a dignified way to exit,” George Eighmey, a retired Oregon legislator who helped pass the law, told Yahoo Health. “That begins with making sure they are getting the best possible care, and that they have the opportunity to explore every option available to them.”

Maynard’s story shines a spotlight on the so-called “aid in dying” movement that has been slowly gaining acceptance in the United States. Since 2008, four other states have passed “death with dignity” legislation: —Washington, Vermont, Montana, and New Mexico.

Related: Deaths Rates Falling for Every Demographic — Except One

For years, helping terminally ill patients end their lives was considered immoral, and doctors who answered the call were shunned and stigmatized. Terms such as “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide” caused fear and misunderstanding, said Eighmey, who is now a board member for the Death With Dignity National Center.

“The more educated people become, the less fear they have about it and the less stigma it carries,” he said. “No one is pressured into using this law; in fact, very few people do. What’s important is that the choice is available to anyone who qualifies.”

Despite the momentum that DWDA laws have gained in recent years, there is still pushback, Eighmey said. “People try to make this a religious or political issue,” he continued. “But the diversity of those who use this law does not support that argument.” According to data Eighmey gathered over the years, more than 50 percent of people who participated in the program described themselves as belonging to a religion, and another 25 percent claimed to be spiritual. Politically, 41 percent said that they were Republican and 43 percent claimed to be Democrat. “It crosses religious and political barriers,” he said. “This is an option that gives comfort to people no matter what they believe."

Related: This Mom is Fighting Her Son’s School Over His Right to Die There

Advocates of DWDA, staunchly oppose the notion that people who choose this option are committing suicide. "The public generally tends to think os of suicide as something committed by a person who is severely depressed but physically healthy, yet they don’t want to live,” said Eighmey. “Aid in dying involves mentally competent people who are terminally ill but would love to live, if possible. People choose to do this not out of desperation, but to maintain some aspect of control in their lives.”

Maynard specifically addressed the notion of “suicide” in her interview with People magazine. "There is not a cell in my body that is suicidal or that wants to die,“ she said., "I want to live. I wish there was a cure for my disease but there’s not.”

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