On June 9, 2016, physician aid-in-dying became legal in California. The new “End of Life Option Act”1 allows terminally ill people to hasten their deaths. Opinion polls have shown strong support for assisted dying over the last thirty years. But Catholic Church leaders and medical groups have beaten back many attempts to legalize aid-in-dying. They succeeded in defeating a 1992 ballot initiative and stalling bills pending in the State Legislature. Had it not been for Brittany Maynard, physician aid-in-dying might have remained illegal in California for the foreseeable future.
A Video That Went Viral
Bay Area resident Brittany Maynard became the face of the assisted-dying movement when she recorded a video2 that was widely viewed in October 2014, just nineteen days before her death. Two years prior to her death, Brittany was a young newlywed. She was attractive and athletic, and looked forward to starting a family. But a year after her marriage, she became very ill and was unable to sleep. “The headaches Brittany was experiencing—it was clear something was horribly wrong,” said Dan Diaz, the husband of Brittany Maynard. They interrupted their vacation and rushed to emergency on New Year’s Eve 2013. Diaz said, “They did a CT scan and that was the first time we saw the image of a brain tumor. So we learned that the tumor was very large and there was no cure.”
Brittany’s doctors told her she had only six months left to live. Treatment options were limited and Brittany decided to let the cancer run its course. During the first few months, Brittany was well enough to complete everything on her wish list—visits to Yellowstone, Glacier Point in Alaska, Olympic National Park. But Dan Diaz says time was running out. “We knew what was coming for her and she was already suffering pain that not even morphine could alleviate,” said Diaz, “The inability to sleep sometimes for days on end, the nausea, vomiting. The seizures were the things that terrified her the most.”
But the final days and weeks were likely to be even more difficult. Diaz said he and Brittany spoke with friends and did on-line research. They learned that Brittany would probably go blind and become paralyzed, as her tumor grew larger. According to Diaz, “Brittany simply said ‘I will not die that way. Why should I be forced to endure that dying process?’ ”
Brittany decided that ending her life was the best option to achieve a gentle and quick death, before her symptoms got worse. At that time, physician-assisted dying was illegal in California, but it was legal in Oregon. Brittany and Diaz packed up their house and drove six hundred miles to Oregon. She met all the requirements under Oregon’s Death with Dignity law and she received the lethal medication.
On October 9, 2014, Brittany released her first video3 with the help of Compassion and Choices, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting medical aid-in-dying. In the video, she told her story about being forced to leave her home to seek physician aid-in-dying in Oregon. “At the same time, People.com, People Magazine—they released that story about her on-line,” said Diaz, “And within that week, twelve million views on YouTube and Brittany Maynard was all of a sudden everywhere. Brittany’s story on People.com—it was the most clicked story that People.com ever had in their history.”
Three weeks after the video was released, Brittany was feeling worse and continued having seizures. On November 2nd, 2014, Brittany said good-bye to her family and friends and self-administered the lethal medication. Dan Diaz and her mother were by her side when she passed. “Upon drinking that medication in five minutes, Brittany fell asleep,” said Diaz, “About thirty minutes later as the medication is absorbed into her system, her breathing slowed and she passed away, very peacefully.”