​Dying wish: Arguing the right to die

Arguing for the legal right to die 08:12

What if a patient's DYING WISH is to die on his or her own terms? It's a passionately debated topic within families -- and within state legislatures -- and not even the terminally ill are in agreement. Our Cover Story is reported by Rita Braver:

As a U.S. Marine, J.J. Hanson survived combat in Iraq. But after he got home, his life was suddenly in peril.

"We were having a lunch meeting, and all of a sudden I started getting this intense feeling," he said. "And my hands started to shake and started to sweat. I said, 'Guys, there's something wrong with me. You need to call 911.'"

His wife, Kristen, recalls: "I got the phone call from the EMT telling me that he had had a seizure, and it was nothing but a feeling of shock: My perfectly-healthy husband was in the hospital."

After an MRI, the news got worse: Kristen Hanson's 33-year-old husband was diagnosed with brain cancer.

"I had a prognosis of likely four months to live," Hanson said. "In a best-case scenario, I could possibly make it a year."

Hanson underwent surgery and chemotherapy. He struggled through nine more seizures while losing his ability to talk and walk.

"I am thinking, what do I do here? Do I continue to fight? Do I give up? Is life worth living? Is it worth going on and feeling this pain?"

J.J. Hanson found himself in the midst of the same daunting struggle as Brittany Maynard, who also suffered from brain cancer. "I refuse to subject myself and my family to purposeless, prolonged pain and suffering at the hands of an incurable disease," she had said.

Maynard made national news in 2014 when she moved to Oregon so she could legally receive a prescription for a lethal combination of pills.

On November 3, 2014, she ended her life on her own terms.

Her story inspired a change in her home state: California recently became the fifth state to legalize "aid in dying." The law will take effect later this year.

A Gallup poll last May shows nearly seven in ten Americans support it.

Barbara Coombs Lee, who heads up an advocacy group called Compassion and Choices, says the subject of assisted suicide is no longer toxic. "It's not taboo anymore," she said.

She co-wrote the first-in-the-nation Oregon law, passed in 1994. It enables terminally-ill, mentally-competent people to ask a doctor for life-ending drugs.

"It's the individual who initiates a request, who undertakes a number of steps in order to gain eligibility," Coombs Lee said. "And then the last safeguard -- a very important one -- is that person has to administer the medication themselves."

But no such law exists in New York State, where the Hansons live, and where Eve Eliot shared a home with Jim DelGrosso, her husband of more than two decades.

"He loved birds," said Eliot. "He was, like, insanely in love with birds, which meant he did not like squirrels.

"He was my true, true love. And I fell intensely in love with him, immediately.

But in 2013, her true love, a professional painter, was diagnosed with ALS, known as Lou Gehrig's disease. It was incurable. DelGrosso quickly lost the use of his hands, and then, control of his entire body.

"To see him not be able to hold a paintbrush, or a spoon ... his life had actually left him, is what happened," she said. "His life left. He was in his body, but his life was gone. And to see him be a prisoner of his body, was unbelievably and indescribably painful. Awful."

To end his suffering, DelGrosso made an excruciating decision: "We had talked about it for hours and hours and hours. We had talked about it for hours, trying to find a way to help him get out of this prison," she said.

With no other legal option in New York State, DelGrosso stopped eating and drinking. He died days later from dehydration.