UB expert in biomedical ethics can discuss Brittany Maynard’s assisted suicide

Release Date: November 4, 2014

“The palliative community has common ground with much of what she has expressed. It is only the last chapter of her story that deviates from theirs. ”
Jack P. Freer, MD, Clinical professor
UB Department of Medicine

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The assisted-suicide death of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old California woman with advanced brain cancer “is a tragic and poignant case that moves people who thought they had assisted suicide settled and all worked out in their minds,” says Jack P. Freer, MD, clinical professor in the University at Buffalo’s Department of Medicine.

Freer is a primary care physician who cares for chronically ill and elderly patients with UBMD, the practice plan of the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. An expert in the fields of geriatrics, palliative care and biomedical ethics, he is responsible for research ethics at UB’s Clinical and Translational Research Center, where he founded and chairs the monthly Clinical and Research Ethics Seminar.

He notes that this case, in particular, has captured the public imagination for several reasons.

“Brittany's youth and vitality, as well as her articulate and rational justifications, all seem to distinguish this from previous stories of medically assisted dying,” he says.

“This is a story that prompts partisans from various points of view to apply their worldview to Brittany's situation. Certainly, those who advocate a right to die found an enthusiastic and powerful spokesperson. Judging from the comments on the YouTube and People Magazine websites, there was also a strong pro-life contingent that urged her to abandon her plans and pray for a miracle.”

In particular, Freer notes, members of the hospice and palliative care community have been especially affected by this case.

“These are people who have worked hard over the past few decades to change the way people die in this society,” he says. “They have transformed the way we approach death, providing humane, medically competent care to dying patients in their homes, surrounded by family and loved ones. 

“This last group is the most conflicted. The first two simply see Brittany’s situation through the lens of their particular ideologies. But, the palliative community has common ground with much of what she has expressed.  It is only the last chapter of her story that deviates from theirs.”

He adds that in 1994, when the Oregon Death with Dignity Act was being debated, the Oregon Hospice Association opposed it. “Now, the organization works more closely with groups like Compassion & Choices, which supported Brittany Maynard’s decision,” Freer points out.

“Palliative people understand what motivates someone to take the path that Brittany Maynard did. They also know this issue is a hot button that could undercut public support for the kind of care they have worked so hard to provide.​

“Ultimately, it is probably the subtle differences in perspective, personality and desire for control that will lead some to a more traditional hospice/palliative path to avoid the suffering of a medicalized death,” concludes Freer, “while others feel the need to deliberately and directly dictate how that story ends.”



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