Brittany Maynard had a choice that is currently being denied to dying Britons

We desperately need to resolve the problem of assisted dying

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The Independent Online

On Saturday, Brittany Maynard died, with her family and friends by her side. She had been suffering from glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive and lethal form of brain cancer, and had decided to control the manner and timing of her imminent and unavoidable death. She died on her own terms; a day after her husband Dan’s birthday and a week after completing her final wish to visit the Grand Canyon.

Brittany had been able to control the timing of her death because she lived in Oregon – one of five states in America which allow terminally ill, mentally competent people to have an assisted death. Her bravery in speaking out in the last few weeks of her life was to enable all Americans to have the same choice that she had. It is a choice that is currently denied to terminally ill people in the UK. 

Whereas Brittany was able to die peacefully in her loved ones arms, the reality for some dying Britons is much different. Almost a year to the day that Brittany was able to control her death, Tracy Snelling from Milton Keynes had a very different experience. Suffering from terminal stomach cancer at the age of just 49, Tracy endured the most awful suffering in the last few weeks of her life. Despite the best efforts of her palliative care team they could do little to relieve her symptoms and, on the day she died, could only clear up the continuous stream of vomit and blood. She died screaming in her husband Steve’s arms. It is a remarkable difference from the death that Brittany had.

Brittany was able to make the short journey from California to become a resident in Oregon so she could have the option of an assisted death. Terminally ill Britons are currently taking much more drastic decisions to have control over their own death; whether by travelling to Switzerland to die at a rate of one a fortnight, or ending their lives themselves in this country. For every one Briton travelling abroad to die, ten more dying Britons are taking matters into their own hands domestically.

The evidence from Oregon shows how an assisted dying law could work here; a law which does not force dying people to suffer against their wishes and provides upfront safeguards to protect vulnerable people. 1 in 50 dying Oregonians feel able to talk freely and openly with their doctor about assisted dying, while only 1 in 500 eventually go on to take the life ending medication. It shows that simply having the choice of an assisted death can provide peace of mind to dying people, even if they do not eventually go on to control their death.

It is time that we look beyond the scaremongering from a small minority of vocal opponents. We need to seriously debate change in Britain.

To that end, an Assisted Dying Bill is currently going through the House of Lords and is due to be discussed this Friday. Brittany Maynard has done much to inform that debate but crucially it is the testimony of people like Tracy Snelling which continue to reinforce the problem we desperately need to resolve in Britain.