Ethical questions surface following the death of Brittany Maynard

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – An Oregon woman who was diagnosed with a terminal illness ended her life over the weekend. Now, people are asking whether her decision was ethical.

Brittany Maynard, 29, was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor. Her story went viral when she announced she would end her life under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act.

"I will die upstairs in my bedroom that I share with my husband," Maynard said, "with my mother and my husband by my side and pass peacefully with some music I like in the background."

While her choice was legal, some are asking if it was ethical.

It’s a question Grand Valley State University Biomedical Ethics Professor Patricia Matthews said could only be answered on an individual basis.

"These are individuals that are expressing their own autonomy,” Matthews said. "They have a right. They’re in their right mind at the time, and that is their wish."

Oregon, Washington, and Vermont are currently the only states that allow a person to choose assisted suicide. According to the Death With Dignity National Center, to get the lethal but legal drugs, a patient must be diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months, be a resident of one of the states where it’s legal, be mentally competent and at least 18 years old.

While some may be suffering and choose to die to end their pain as Maynard did, there’s another strong reason a terminially ill person may choose this option, Matthews said.

"Dignity is a huge thing. When you take away anyone’s dignity and they can no longer say, ‘this is my decision’ and someone else is giving them medication, somebody else is literally spoon feeding them, they don’t want to live that way."

However, Dan Maison, medical director of palliative care at Spectrum Health, said there are other means that don’t include taking your own life.

"Any time anybody’s faced with a serious, life-threatening or life-limiting illness, or even a terminal illness, the amount of things you have to go through and think through can be absolutely overwhelming," Maison said.

Options such as hospice and palliative care, Maison said, can be some of the best resources to "be as comfortable [and] peaceful and really work on maintaining their dignity and maximizing their quality of life for whatever time they have left," Maison said.

When it comes to Maynard's choice to end her life versus palliative care, Matthews said there’s no right or wrong answer.

"It’s going to be totally in the eye of the beholder based upon their ethical viewpoint, their religious view point," she said.

When a doctor is asked to write the prescription, they have the right to refuse and refer the patient to a different doctor.


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  • Laura

    I think, no matter what anyone else thinks, a terminally ill person has the right to decide what they want & no one else should interfere.

  • Georgie

    My brother committed suicide 14 years ago. He was not terminally ill, but apparently severely depressed. While many of you will say Mrs. Maynard should not have taken her own life I must disagree strongly. What better way to go than with your husband and mother at your side supporting you, listening to your favorite music and peacefully going to sleep. That is a much better way than my brother chose…in the cold (January in Michigan), alone, writing his last letter that we didn’t even get to keep because he took his own life. In Michigan a death by suicide is a felony.

    Terminally ill SHOULD have a right to decide how they go. Its their last chance to go peacefully.