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DN Editorial: Go gentle

For right-to-die advocates, Brittany Maynard may be a game changer.

IT HAS BEEN 20 years since Oregon adopted the nation's first Death with Dignity law, allowing physicians to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients. And it has been 17 years since the legal challenges were defeated and the law took effect.

That's more than enough time to conclude that the law has not led to a rash of coerced suicides by family members tired of taking care of Granny. It did not lead to a rash of anything, in fact.

Data from the Oregon Public Health Division show that between 1997 and 2013, 1,173 terminally ill patients received prescriptions for life-ending medication and only 752 of them decided to use the medication. Another 31 people may have taken the medication, but the information wasn't reported to the state.

Those numbers are evidence that the fear mongering that has shut down past attempts to get similar laws passed - including efforts in California - was baseless.

The data should also empower political leaders in other states to restart the public debate about whether dying people have the right to consciously choose how they live, or don't, in their final days.

California may be the first, thanks to Brittany Maynard. The 29-year-old was diagnosed in April with an incurable, aggressive brain tumor that kills its victims in a particularly horrible way that involves seizures, memory loss, personality changes and pain.

Maynard didn't want to go that way. So she and her family moved to Oregon where the law allows her some control over a certain end. On Saturday, she took lethal medication that ended her life, after spending her final days advocating for right-to-die laws.

Her message has resonated nationally.

The last legislative attempt in California was seven years ago. But Assembly Bill 374, the California Compassionate Choices Act, stalled before it could get a full vote.

Organizations still are opposed - the Catholic Church and the California Medical Association, among others. People are still getting arrested and going to jail for helping loved ones with terminal illness, even things as simple as handing morphine to a dying parent.

Here in Pennsylvania, where Sen. Daylin Leach has spearheaded unsuccessful efforts for a death-with-dignity bill, for example, Barbara Mancini was recently charged with assisting her ill father's death by giving him a bottle of morphine. A judge later threw out the charge.

But enough has changed culturally that it's an open question.

The right-to-die's toughest opponent, the Catholic Church, has changed, too. Pope Francis has refocused on poverty and human rights. Baby boomers have begun to grapple with the end-of-life realities of their parents and themselves.

And then, of course, there is Brittany Maynard, whose story could be a game changer.

"It brought younger Americans to the issue in a way that made them think it could happen to them," said Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center in Portland, Oregon. She said polls show that millennials generally support right-to-die laws, but don't think it's very relevant to their lives. Now they might.