Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer, took her own life on Nov. 1, as authorized under Oregon's "Death with Dignity Act." After finding out that she had six months to live and would suffer tremendously as her condition progressed, she decided that she would prefer to end her life on her own terms with the aid of a doctor and specialized drugs. Maynard and her family moved to Oregon, one of five states including Montana, Washington, New Mexico and Vermont that allow physician-assisted death, so she could end her life when her suffering became too great.
Her story once again raised the question of whether it is acceptable for a person to end his or her life before its "natural" end. In a Gallup poll conducted May 8-11, before Maynard's story went public, nearly seven in 10 Americans said they believed physicians should be able to "legally end a patient's life by some painless means." These views are similar to what Gallup has found for more than two decades.
However, the phrasing of the topic affects Americans' level of support for physician-assisted death. When Gallup asked whether doctors should be allowed by law to "assist the patient to commit suicide," support dipped to 58%.
Since the mid-1990s, both questions have had majority support in the United States. Only once, in 2001, did "commit suicide" have greater support than "painless means," 68% to 65%. That particular survey was taken shortly after a court in Florida took Terri Schiavo off her feeding tube in a landmark case of physician-assisted suicide. Every other time Gallup has asked this question, however, "painless means" has garnered greater support.
One of Maynard's wishes during this sad, final year of her illness was to shine more light on the "death with dignity" movement, and that perhaps her death would have an impact on laws -- and public opinion -- on this topic in the near future.