Should terminally ill have a “right to die”?

Moderated by Rick Badie

In November, Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old terminally ill woman, took her own life under Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. Lawmakers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wyoming are considering similar bills. Where does this region stands as it relates to the right to end one’s life? Expect lobbying efforts for a Georgia law during the 2015 General Assembly, writes the state president of an aid-in-dying advocacy group. Meanwhile, a pro-life advocate questions the ethics of such a life-ending medical option.

We should honor Brittany’s legacy

By Perry Mitchell

“There is not a cell in my body that is suicidal or that wants to die. I want to live. I wish there was a cure for my disease, but there’s not.” — Brittany Maynard

Can you imagine being a bright, energetic young woman of just 29 and saying those words?

In January, Brittany received a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, which proved so aggressive her doctors gave her just months to live. She chose to spend some of that time publicly advocating for death with dignity.

Why did Brittany speak out so forcefully?

“The amount of sacrifice and change my family had to go through for me to get legal access to death with dignity — changing our residency, establishing a new team of doctors, finding a new place to live — was profound,” she said. “There are tons of Americans who don’t have that time or ability or finances, and I don’t think that’s right or fair.”

Once Brittany made her decision, she contacted Compassion & Choices, the nation’s largest organization that works to improve end-of-life issues. Unfortunately, death with dignity is authorized in only five states: Oregon, Washington, Montana, New Mexico and Vermont. Brittany lived in California, so her family had to move to Oregon to access its death with dignity law.

National polls show nearly 70 percent of Americans support the option of death with dignity. Why should geography determine when and how a competent adult with a terminal illness is allowed to end her suffering?

Death with dignity laws typically have strict safeguards regulating the medical practice of aid in dying. Two physicians must attest the patient has six months or less to live and that the patient is mentally competent. And only a tiny percentage of people who die use them. In Oregon, where the state health authority has kept rigorous records for 17 years, it’s 0.2 percent of deaths. As most of you know, on Nov. 1, Brittany did make the choice to end her life — peacefully, at home, surrounded by family.

In Georgia, we’re constrained by a law making it a felony for anyone, including doctors, “to offer to assist in the commission of a suicide.” There are no exceptions for adult terminally ill patients – no matter if their doctors have attested they have just months to live; no matter if they are mentally competent; no matter how severe their pain may be.

However, because of the outpouring of nationwide support for Brittany choosing aid in dying, Compassion & Choices intends to introduce death with dignity legislation in as many states as possible.

Very soon, we’ll begin to line up legislative sponsors in Georgia for this January’s General Assembly. If you want to honor Brittany’s legacy — if you think it should be your decision, your right, to control your own life all the way to your final days — you need to speak out as forcefully as Brittany did. Contact your state legislators; contact Compassion & Choices at

Perry Mitchell is Georgia chapter president of Compassion & Choices.

Life is a gift

By Kathleen Gallagher

“My life. My death. My choice.”

That’s the slogan of the assisted suicide advocacy organization called “Compassion & Choices.” They used to be called the Hemlock Society, and they promote the so-called “right to die.” They recently orchestrated a public relations campaign with Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old terminally ill woman who chose to take her life Nov. 1.

Before she died, Brittany made a video in which she explained her diagnosis of brain cancer and the medical prognosis of only months to live. She came across as a sympathetic person, a newlywed, attractive, always adventurous — hiking, kayaking, traveling — things she continued to do almost until the time of her death.

But Brittany said she was choosing to die on her own terms. She moved from California to Oregon because Oregon law allows doctor-assisted suicide. She asked for and received a lethal dose of drugs from a physician in Oregon, pills she ingested to commit suicide while in her home surrounded by her family.

How very, very sad.

I can understand the fear of pain and suffering. But ask any doctor who works with cancer patients or the terminally ill, and they will tell you the level of opioids available today work magnificently in treating physical pain. Side effects of the drugs can be managed effectively, and palliative care is top-notch in this country. It’s the emotional pain that is harder to manage.

Terminal patients often fear losing their dignity, being a burden on others, and losing the ability to do things they have always done. For someone as young and active as Brittany was, it must be particularly difficult.

In her video, Brittany’s mom said her daughter had always been a “very autonomous person.” Perhaps that is what Brittany feared most: losing her autonomy. Statistics from states with legal “aid-in-dying” reveal loss of autonomy is the No. 1 reason cited for choosing death.

Thankfully, most states have laws that prohibit physician-assisted suicide. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld New York’s ban on assisted suicide in 1997; in the unanimous decision, the justices said, “New York’s reasons — including prohibiting intentional killing and preserving life; preventing suicide; maintaining physicians’ role as their patients’ healers; protecting vulnerable people from indifference, prejudice, and psychological and financial pressure to end their lives; and avoiding a possible slide towards euthanasia — are valid and important public interests.”

Those reasons are perhaps even more valid today, as health care rationing has begun and insurance companies search for the least expensive “treatment” for terminal illness.

I’ve always wondered why advocates of assisted suicide would limit the “assistants” to doctors. If it’s such an awesome choice, why not allow other professionals to take part in the public service? Police officers could leave their loaded weapons on the hospital bedside, walk away and allow patients to use them.

Sound absurd? Of course it is.

In every other circumstance, our society tries to prevent suicide, sending first responders with the message, “Don’t do it!” Major bridges now post signs that state “Life is Worth Living,” signs that promote a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline.

I can’t help but feel that Brittany Maynard was exploited as a fundraising tool by Compassion & Choices. They continue to have a campaign on their website in Brittany’s name to raise money to legalize assisted suicide in all 50 states. It makes me wonder if suicide really was Brittany’s free choice.

Brittany said she wanted to “pass in peace” and to “die with dignity.” I wish I could have told her, “You can! You don’t need to kill yourself. You can enjoy a peaceful, natural death, in relative comfort, surrounded by love and acceptance and grace. You haven’t lost your dignity because you are sick, or weak, or dependent on others. Life is a gift. It is always worth living.”

Kathleen Gallagher is director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference.

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