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Oregon Case Renews Right-to-Die Debate

The recent death of a young woman in Oregon has sparked a renewed national conversation over the so-called right to die.

On Saturday, Brittany Maynard, who suffered from inoperable brain cancer, took a lethal dose of barbiturates.

In the months between her diagnosis and her death, the 29-year-old campaigned to raise awareness about "death with dignity" laws, which allow doctors to provide medication to terminally ill patients who choose to end their own lives. Three states – Oregon, Vermont and Washington – have such laws.

A dire diagnosis

Maynard was a vibrant young newlywed when she started to suffer from severe headaches.

"I didn't understand them because I had never had anything like that before in my life," she said in a video she posted on YouTube in October, which to date has received over 11 million hits.

FILE - Cancer patient Brittany Maynard, shown with her Great Dane puppy, took a lethal dose of medication prescribed by a doctor.

FILE - Cancer patient Brittany Maynard, shown with her Great Dane puppy, took a lethal dose of medication prescribed by a doctor.

After a series of tests, doctors confirmed the worst. They told Maynard she had glioblastoma multiforme, the most aggressive and lethal form of brain cancer. It quickly grows and spreads to other parts of the brain. Studies show that few patients survive beyond three years, regardless of the treatment course they receive. Maynard was given just six months to live.

"Right when I was diagnosed, my husband and I were actively trying for a family, which is heartbreaking for us both," she explained.

Aware that her cancer was incurable, Maynard decided she’d rather die on her own terms than go through unbearable pain and suffering.

A plan to die

She and her family moved from California to Oregon, where the state’s Death With Dignity Act allows people with a terminal illness to get life-ending medication from their doctor so they can die peacefully.

"I can't even tell you the amount of relief it provides me to know that I don't have to die the way it's been described to me that my brain tumor would take me on its own," she said.

Brittany Maynard set a date of November 1 and planned to die in her bedroom with her family by her side.

During her remaining time, she launched a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of choice in the right-to-die debate. She worked with Compassion and Choices, a leading nonprofit organization committed to helping people with their end-of-life choices.

She also spent time with her loved ones, traveling with them to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park and Alaska.

On Saturday, she took a lethal amount of drugs and died as she had wished: peacefully, surrounded by family, in the comfort of her home.

Controversy continues

Maynard's decision to end her life was supported by George Eighmey, a board member of the Death With Dignity National Center, a nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, that promotes, passes and protects right-to-die laws.

But he told VOA that not everyone would agree with her choice.

"The main opposition is religious," he said. "So when it's a religious opposition, all I can say is: I respect your beliefs, I respect you. Please respect our option to use this law.

"The other opposition is generally from either physicians who believe that they shouldn’t be doing this because of their ethical standards or they believe that there may be abuses.

"Well, we have set up all these safeguards to prevent the abuses," he noted.

Requests outnumber assisted deaths

Whether terminally ill people should have the right to die is still an open question, said Cynda Rushton, a professor at Johns Hopkins' Berman Institute of Bioethics and School of Nursing in Baltimore, Maryland.

"Having a policy that allows people to have choices at the end of life does not then mean that everyone has to follow that particular path," Rushton said. "What we’ve learned in Oregon is that having a law has allowed people to request this process to be initiated, but actually a small number have ended up implementing that request."

From the law’s 1997 passage through January of this year, a total of 1,173 people had prescriptions written for lethal medications and 752 died from ingesting the drugs, according to the Oregon Public Health Division. Requests have steadily climbed, reaching 122 last year; of those, 71 led to assisted deaths.

Before she died, Brittany Maynard gave viewers of her YouTube video some advice about living.

"Seize the day," she said. "What’s important to you? What do you care about? What matters? Pursue that. Forget the rest."

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