The highly publicized physician-assisted suicide of 29-year-old brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard has given the ailing right-to-die movement a new lease on life.
A national campaign advocating state right-to-die legislation kicked off Wednesday in Sacramento with the introduction of the California End of Life Option Act, modeled after Oregon’s 1994 law allowing doctors to aid terminally ill adults who want to end their lives.
Another dozen states are expected to follow with similar legislation, including Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware and Missouri. The D.C. Council is considering a “death with dignity” proposal introduced last week by council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, and the New Jersey Assembly passed an Oregon-style bill in November.
“We have a goal of 10 in 10. In the next 10 years, we’re anticipating having 10 more states,” said George Eighmey, a former Oregon state legislator who serves as vice president of the Death with Dignity National Center in Portland, Oregon.
“It’s sort of like the other social movements that are out there — the gay rights movement, the legalizing marijuana movement. All those things get to a critical mass and once they get to that critical mass, you start seeing other states get on board very quickly,” said Mr. Eighmey, who advised on the California bill.
Such a proposal would have been dead on arrival even a year ago, but the previously moribund movement has staged a miraculous recovery in the wake of Maynard’s media stardom. The attractive newlywed appeared in dozens of print and television interviews, including the cover of People magazine, before she killed herself with the aid of a doctor on Nov. 1 in Portland.
Her fame was no fluke: Plugging Maynard’s story behind the scenes was Compassion & Choices, a right-to-die group funded by liberal billionaire George Soros that emerged from the ashes of the now-defunct Hemlock Society.
“It’s an organized campaign funded by Soros money, and they’re using the Maynard case as their launching pad,” said Wesley J. Smith, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a euthanasia opponent.
“Let’s think about this for a second: There have been over 700 assisted suicides in Oregon, and not one of them got this kind of attention. What you have is a movement that looks around for just the right kind of emotional kick,” Mr. Smith said. “You don’t get this kind of international, high-profile media by accident.”
Compassion & Choices “certainly recognized what they had in Maynard,” Jeff Yang said in a Nov. 5 article in online media outlet Quartz.
“As soon as she called their headquarters in Denver, Colorado, they put into motion a brilliantly savvy national campaign to leverage her unique appeal as a spokesperson for their movement,” Mr. Yang said.
“Compassion & Choices arranged for People to tell a heartfelt story about Maynard’s decision. They connected her with CNN Opinion to write a widely read and shared op-ed. They shot, edited and released to YouTube a mesmerizing 6 -minute video featuring Maynard, her husband and her mother speaking movingly about her choice. They also helped her build a website and launch a social media campaign that turned her name and the #DeathWithDignity slogan into nationally trending hashtags.”
As a result, Maynard is increasingly becoming the face of the movement, replacing Jack Kevorkian, a largely unsympathetic figure who claimed to have assisted in at least 130 suicides and was known as “Dr. Death.”
He died in 2011 at age 83 of complications from kidney problems and liver cancer.
Maynard’s story was the boost advocates had been seeking since Oregon voters approved the nation’s first assisted suicide act in 1994. Since 1997, when the law went into effect, the state has tallied 752 physician-assisted deaths, in which a doctor prescribes but does not administer lethal medication.
Only Oregon residents 18 and older who are mentally competent and have less than six months to live qualify under the law, which prompted Maynard to move from California to Oregon in order to establish residency.
It was impossible to overlook the influence of Maynard at Wednesday’s press conference in Sacramento. Her mother, Debbie Ziegler, and husband, Dan Diaz, were in attendance, and the Jan. 26 People magazine cover showing the couple before her death was on display near the podium at the state Capitol.
“Having aid in dying as an end-of-life option provided great relief to Brittany,” Mr. Diaz said in a statement. “It enabled my wife to focus on living her last days to the fullest, rather than having to worry about dying in agony from terminal brain cancer. I promised Brittany I would do everything in my power to fulfill her mission to make this end-of-life option available to all Californians.”
After Oregon voters approved the Death With Dignity Act, the movement stalled. It took until 2008 for voters in a second state, Washington, to enact a similar law. In 2013, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law the Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act.
The Montana and New Mexico high courts have ruled that physicians may prescribe lethal drugs to the competent terminally ill.
At the same time, state legislatures have snuffed dozens of right-to-die bills over the years, and Massachusetts voters defeated in November 2012 a “death with dignity” initiative by 51 percent to 49 percent.
One big reason: The disabled community, led by groups such as Not Dead Yet, has mobilized against assisted-suicide measures, including the California bill, arguing that they are ripe for abuse.
“If this bill passes, some people’s lives will be ended without their consent, through mistakes and abuse,” Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst for the Disabled Rights Education & Defense Fund, said in a Wednesday statement. “No safeguards have ever been enacted or proposed that can prevent this outcome, which can never be undone.”