The death of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard cast a spotlight this week on a controversial set of laws in the U.S. that allow physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to patients with terminal illnesses. The Oregon resident, who was diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer in January, legally committed suicide at her home in Portland on Sunday. Some have wondered if the widely shared account of Maynard’s choice to end her life, which made the rounds on social media and drew praise from both advocates of assisted-suicide laws and celebrities, will help lawmakers expand such laws elsewhere.
But it might be too early to tell, experts said. “I doubt it’s going to turn things around overnight,” Alan Meisel, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Pittsburgh, told World Report.
No state will vote on so-called death with dignity laws during the Tuesday elections, but some experts said they believe Maynard’s story has helped shape the conversation around assisted-suicide laws. In Oregon, 752 patients have participated in physician-assisted suicide. The median age of those patients was 71.
“Younger people support death with dignity at really high levels, but it’s not necessarily relevant or salient to their lives,” Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center in Portland, told the Associated Press. “I think the Brittany Maynard story makes it real.”
Five U.S. states have legalized assisted suicide. Oregon in 1997 became the first state to allow terminally ill people to end their lives. Vermont and Washington have since passed similar laws. Montana and New Mexico made it legal through the courts. While the Supreme Court does not recognize assisted suicide as a right protected by the Constitution, it upheld Oregon’s law in 2001 and has said it is a matter to be settled by the states, according to World Report.
The nonprofit organization Compassion & Choice has spent roughly $7 million a year to safeguard existing assisted-suicide laws and to support efforts to expand them beyond Oregon, Montana, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington.