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While it has been more than two decades since Oregon voters approved the nation’s first assisted suicide law, the controversial practice returned to the headlines last fall with the story of Brittany Maynard.
Suffering from an aggressive and fatal form of brain cancer, the 29-year-old Californian took her own life in November in accordance with Oregon’s death with dignity law.
Maynard’s death renewed the national conversation around assisted suicide. Since last fall, the laws governing the practice — even in states where it’s legal — have continued to evolve.
This past week, Oregon state representative Mitch Greenlick (D) introduced a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication for patients who have one year left to live, up from the six months currently permitted by law.
Assisted suicide is still only legal in three states — with court decisions opening the door to the practice in New Mexico and Montana. But following Maynard’s very visible campaign, dozens of states have introduced or are reconsidering right-to-die legislation. Lawsuits have been filed in California and New York to allow the practice in those states as well.
It’s an issue that has been on the mind’s of producers at the NewsHour for years.
My colleague Lee Hochberg reported on the legal and courtroom tussle that Oregon faced in the wake of the Death With Dignity law’s passage in 1994. It all resulted in yet another referendum reaffirming the law in 1997 and eventually a Supreme Court decision.
And the conversation lingers with many Americans as well. As our population ages and our medical advances improve, there are questions about how far we’re willing to go to prolong our lives.
A few weeks ago, leading health care expert Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel penned an Atlantic magazine piece, “Why I Want to Die at 75.” He explained his rationale to our Judy Woodruff.
Canada’s supreme court this February overturned its ban on assisted suicide. In Belgium, which has the world’s most liberal law on physician-assisted suicide, patients with psychiatric illness — and even children — can request euthanasia.
This all leads to a single question — how do we want to die?
Many Americans have decades to answer that question, but Brittany’s case makes it very real for a much younger demographic. It’s not quite clear yet what impact her story will have on the right-to-die movement, but she has certainly sparked a crucial conversation.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Nov. 2, 2014. It has been updated as of Mar. 6, 2015.
Stephen Fee is a producer and on-air reporter for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Since joining the broadcast in January 2014, he's reported on the obesity crisis in Mexico, the safety risks of the US shale oil boom, and the debate over terminally ill people using experimental drugs, among other stories.
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