Editor’s note: Brittany Maynard ended her life November 1.
The American public is more or less evenly split on the question of physician-assisted death in the case of terminal illness. According to a Pew Research Center survey, Americans are split 49 to 47 percent in opposition to legislation that permits physicians to prescribe lethal medications to terminally ill patients. Views on the controversial subject, Pew notes, have been more or less stagnant since 2005.
The GOP hasn’t budged an inch in the last decade, either. The Republican Party Platform still vehemently opposes “active and passive euthanasia and assisted suicide” as a violation of “the sanctity and dignity of human life.” And the Religious Right, it seems, is toeing the hard line with Pew finding that 67 percent of white evangelical Protestants oppose physician-assisted death as compared to just 36 percent of white mainline Protestants. By contrast, Gallup found that a majority of Democrats believe that physician-assisted death is morally acceptable.
Will the GOP and the Religious Right ever shift their views on physician-assisted death? In the past week, a young woman named Brittany Maynard may have become the most likely advocate to give the end-of-life choice movement the momentum it needs to reach out to the Right. Maynard, 29, plans to end her own life on November 1st under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act (DWDA, after learning that a malignant brain tumor would be terminal.
In an exclusive interview with People, Maynard discusses her decision to end her life by ingesting lethal medication, less than two years after her wedding. Maynard has chosen to use the last month of her life fundraising for the end-of-life choice organization Compassion & Choices and, if the media storm that is gathering around her is any indication, she is currently proving to be a remarkably effective spokesperson.
But Maynard is not the first person in Oregon to use the Death with Dignity Act. Since its enactment in 1997, 752 Oregonians have used prescriptions for lethal medications for their intended purpose. Physician-assisted death is also legal in four other states: Washington, Montana, Arizona, and Vermont. So why has Maynard’s story in particular struck a chord with the mainstream media? And what could her campaign achieve among the Americans most resistant to expanded end-of-life options?
For one, Maynard’s youth makes her case a noteworthy one. According to data from the Oregon Public Health Division, if Maynard takes her prescription, she will only be the 7th person ever in the 18 to 34 age bracket to die from the ingestion of lethal medication under the DWDA. The median age across all 752 physician-assisted deaths in Oregon is 71. While 743 people above age 55 have made the same decision as Maynard, her status as a young, affluent white woman draws especial attention to her case. When Princess Diana died in a fatal car accident, she unwittingly became a routinely cited figure in the promotion road safety; Maynard, on the other hand, seems to be consciously wielding her social position in advance of her own death in order to become the public face of a movement that is sorely in need of attention. As Maynard told People: “There’s tons of Americans who don’t have time or the ability or finances [to do this] and I don’t think that’s right or fair.”
But while Maynard’s age seems to be the primary factor that brought her into the public eye, her emphasis on marriage and family may have the potential to reach those on the Right who oppose the end-of-life choice movement most vigorously. The media coverage surrounding Maynard’s decision focuses on her devastation at receiving a brain cancer diagnosis shortly after her marriage. The People interview and The Brittany Maynard Fund’s website, for example, both prominently feature wedding photos of Maynard and her husband, Dan Diaz.
And throughout her interview, Maynard stresses the importance of her family during this heart-wrenching time. Not only were she and her husband “actively trying for a family” at the time of her initial diagnosis, Maynard herself is the only child of her own parents. Maynard says that she will be spending her final days with her family, including her husband’s birthday on October 26th, which falls just six days before her scheduled death.
By framing her struggle in relationship to her own family, Maynard, whether consciously or otherwise, is speaking the language (marriage, love, family) of the end-of-life choice movement’s most ardent political opponents. To be sure, this rhetoric is not a calculated political strategy—Maynard’s story is as heartbreaking to read as it is earnestly delivered—but it may unintentionally prove to be the most effective tool for reaching those on the Right who are most likely to deny access to physician-assisted death. At her particular intersection of age, race, wealth, and life experience, Maynard has become the end-of-life choice movement’s icon in a matter of days, and for good reason: her family-centered narrative is broadly relatable, and Maynard has chosen to wield it in order to advocate for all who would benefit from legislation like the Death with Dignity Act.
Maynard has made one other choice, too, that will make her efforts especially appealing to the GOP: she never once uses the word “suicide.” In fact, in her People interview, Maynard vehemently calls out anyone who equates her decision with suicide: “There is not a cell in my body that is suicidal or that wants to die,” she says. “I want to live. I wish there was a cure for my disease but there’s not.”
In avoiding the language of “suicide,” Maynard falls in line with media guidelines from Compassion & Choices which advise that “suicide is an inaccurate description of the medical practice of aid in dying,” citing the “profound psychological differences” between patients who seek physician-assisted death and people who suffer from suicidal ideation. Of course, her conscious use of language hasn’t stopped some major media outlets like The Washington Post and Newsweek from using terms like “assisted suicide” instead.
Maynard’s move away from the polarizing vocabulary of “suicide” will also help her story to resonate with GOP voters. A 2013 Gallup poll revealed that public support for physician-assisted death shifts dramatically depending on how it is described. Seventy percent of Americans support the right to “end the patient’s life by some painless means,” but only 51 percent support “assist[ing] the patient to commit suicide.” But as some bloggers noted at the time, Gallup’s data also indicates that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to change their minds about physician-assisted death when different language is used. Democratic support for physician-assisted death falls 11 points from 71 percent to 60 percent when the term “suicide” is used in the survey, while Republican support falls from 68 percent all the way down to 41 percent, a difference of 27 points.
These findings neatly correspond with recent Gallup data that shows that Democrats are over twice as likely as Republicans to find suicide morally acceptable. As soon as the word “suicide” enters conversations around end-of-life choice, Republicans shut down. But when advocates like Maynard share their reasoning using more accurate language, Republicans are more prepared to listen. In the coming month, Maynard may play a crucial role in helping the GOP inch forward on this controversial issue.
It’s impossible to read Maynard’s story without feeling it as a punch in the gut. Her situation is tragic and yet she will spend her final days campaigning for others who share her plight. If her plans bear out, Maynard will pass away surrounded by family on November 1st. Until then, she has an unprecedented ability to make a lasting change to America’s painful conversations about death.