Brittany Maynard, the terminally ill 29-year-old who spent her final days advocating for death-with-dignity laws, took lethal drugs prescribed by her physician on Saturday and died, a spokesman said, “as she intended — peacefully in her bedroom, in the arms of her loved ones.”
Maynard, who was diagnosed earlier this year with a stage 4 malignant brain tumor, said last month she planned to die Nov. 1 in her home in Portland, Ore., with help from her doctor. And Saturday, she said farewell, having succeeded at reviving interest — and debate — in a charged subject that had been out of the news for some years. (See “How Brittany Maynard may change the right-to-die debate.”
“Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love. Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me … but would have taken so much more,” she wrote on Facebook, according to People. The magazine reported she took a fatal dose of barbiturates. “The world is a beautiful place, travel has been my greatest teacher, my close friends and folks are the greatest givers. I even have a ring of support around my bed as I type…. Goodbye world. Spread good energy. Pay it forward!”
Maynard first said she planned to die Nov. 1, but in a video released last week, she said she might postpone. “It doesn’t seem like the right time … right now,” she said. “But it will come, because I feel myself getting sicker.”
Near the end, Maynard’s symptoms worsened. She suffered frequent seizures, head and neck pain and “stroke-like symptoms,” said Sean Crowley, a spokesman for Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization that supports death-with-dignity laws for the terminally ill. But “as symptoms grew more severe, she chose to abbreviate the dying process by taking the aid-in-dying medication she had received months ago. This choice is authorized under the Oregon Death With Dignity Act.”
While others have made the same choice in the United States and abroad, few, if any, have made it so publicly — aided in her case by social media and an advocacy group that would like to see more laws such as Oregon’s.
The advocacy group published an obituary for Maynard accompanied by a fundraising appeal. Critics of death-with-dignity laws, such as National Right to Life (NRL), called the organization “ghoulish” in its handling of Maynard’s case.
“While we would never criticize Maynard,” NRL said on it Web site, “we are angry that Compassion & Choices would exploit her tragedy for its own malevolent purposes. Maynard’s case is what groups like Compassion & Choices live for, a beautiful young woman about to be cut down in the prime of her life. It matters not that such cases — authentically terminal illnesses — are always the opening wedge after which, once the principal is established, the ‘right’ to be ‘assisted’ expands to a whole panoply of reasons none of which are about terminal illnesses. Compassion & Choice’s agenda extends far beyond terminally ill 29-year-old women.”
And although Maynard’s story, widely documented in TV interviews and popular magazines, brought forth a well of supporters, there were also social media efforts devoted to persuading her to take a different course.
Maynard’s journey began on New Year’s Day when she was diagnosed with brain cancer. By April, she was told she had six months to live. She looked at treatment options — and side effects. She considered hospice care.
Then she made her decision: doctor-assisted death.
“After months of research, my family and I reached a heartbreaking conclusion,” she wrote in an op-ed for CNN. “There is no treatment that would save my life, and the recommended treatments would have destroyed the time I had left.”
This summer, Maynard and her husband, Dan Diaz, moved from California to Oregon to gain access to the state’s death-with-dignity law. Oregon is one of five states with such legal protections. She soon became an advocate for physician-assisted suicide and gained national attention in her fight to move other states to enact similar legislation. She launched her own campaign with Compassion & Choices. Lawmakers in Connecticut and New Jersey came out in support of her cause, she wrote on her blog last month.
“I didn’t launch this campaign because I wanted attention,” she wrote. “I did this because I want to see a world where everyone has access to death with dignity, as I have had. My journey is easier because of this choice.”
Maynard graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley and later earned a master’s degree from the University of California at Irvine, according to her obituary.
She met her husband in 2007 and married him in 2012. She told CBS “This Morning” she was sad to die without giving him children, but she realized she was leaving behind a different kind of legacy through her work.
Maynard will be remembered by her friends as an adventurous traveler, having spent time teaching at orphanages in Kathmandu, Nepal; working in Costa Rica; traveling to Tanzania; and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Even in her final months, she pushed herself to experience places she had never seen. Late last month, Maynard and her family went to the Grand Canyon — the last task on her “bucket list.”
“The Canyon was breathtakingly beautiful, and I was able to enjoy my time with the two things I love most: my family and nature,” she wrote. She posted photos showing her kissing her husband, hiding behind her mother and posing for a family portrait. The next day, she said, she was hit by her worst seizure to date, temporarily leaving her unable to speak.
In 1997, Oregon became the first U.S. state to make it legal for physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients who meet certain qualifications. Since then, more than 1,100 in the state have filled life-ending prescriptions under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act. However, only about 750 have actually used the drugs to die.
“The freedom is in the choice,” she said, according to her obituary. “If the option of DWD is unappealing to anyone for any reason, they can simply choose not to avail themselves of it. Those very real protections are already in place.”
In the end, it seems Maynard was also unsure when she would end her life. A loved-one wrote on Facebook she was not set to die Nov. 1, “but as her condition worsened and the tumor took over control,” the Oregonian reported.
“I am so lucky to have known the love of an amazing husband (my husband Dan is a hero), a loving, caring mother, and an incredible group of friends and extended family,” Maynard wrote last month. “I hope you will all take up my request to carry on this work, and support them as they carry on my legacy. I’m so grateful to you all.”
Maynard is survived by her husband, her mother, Deborah Ziegler, and her stepfather Gary Holmes.