Why I Advocate for Death with Dignity


When I was growing up in Boone, Iowa, death and dying were a matter of fact in my family. My mother was a hospice nurse, and when we gathered around the dinner table, conversations about death were common.

But I wouldn’t face death on a deep, personal level until much later. In 1989, I graduated from college and met John. By the time we got married two years later, John had been diagnosed with HIV. Nearly everyone with the virus died badly back then, and my husband’s immediate response was, “I don’t want to die that way.”

It was then that I truly understood how important it is for a dying person to be able to decide how they die. As his health declined, John wanted to be in control of his own medical care, including how he died. He’d been in charge of his life; all he wanted was to be in charge of it until the very end.

Time and again, I’ve seen people join the Death with Dignity movement because of a personal experience like mine. Will you share your story with me? What inspired you to get involved with our cause? What does Death with Dignity mean to you?

When John (pictured with our daughter Hannah) died in 1993, I went on to become a social worker. The profession’s values — personal autonomy and self-determination as foundations of human dignity — reflect my own. It was at around that time that the issue entered the popular debate and Oregon passed the nation’s first Death with Dignity law. Death with Dignity had not been an option for John, so I’ve dedicated my life to creating an environment for dying individuals to be empowered to control how they die.

After managing the AIDS Project of Central Iowa and finishing my doctoral coursework at Portland State University, I accepted the position of Executive Director at the Death with Dignity National Center. To call this an exciting opportunity is an understatement: barely six months into the job I was standing on the steps of the US Supreme Court as we defended the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. Since then, we spearheaded the successful ballot initiative in Washington and helped pass the Vermont law.

This is my story, the reason I began my lifelong journey of advocating for Death with Dignity. And, it is stories like yours that inspire me to continue doing this important work. It would be an honor if you shared your story with me today.

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Barbara Coffin: Dedicated Advocate and Volunteer

Barbara Coffin and her daughter. Photo care of KOMO News.
Barbara Coffin and her daughter. Photo care of KOMO News.

In 2008, we worked with our local partners Compassion & Choices of Washington to pass Washington’s Death with Dignity Act through a ballot initiative. With over 58% of voters approving I-1000, Washington became the second US state to enact a law emulating our model legislation which allows terminally ill adults the right to control the timing and manner of their own deaths.

This effort happened with the help of hundreds of hours of work by thousands of volunteers. One prominent, dedicated volunteer before and after the campaign was Barbara Coffin. On Tuesday this week, she said goodbye to her loved ones and exercised her right under Washington’s Death with Dignity Act. She died in her daughter’s arms.

In an interview with KOMO News she shared why she chose to plan her own death stating, “Right now everything hurts. It hurts to move, it hurts to get up and down, hurts to take a breath. I have no energy. It’s hard to look at me on the outside and understand how bad I am on the inside. So it might be hard to understand how ready I am.”

After completing the request process she invited her closest friends and family for a farewell party. Together, they laughed and cried as they shared memories and stories. A week later, she gathered a handful of people closest to her, laid down on her bed, and drank the liquid medication. She soon fell asleep, and not long after, she died.

Barbara’s reasons for requesting and taking the medication allowed under Washington’s law are similar to the reasons I hear from others; she’s made decisions throughout her entire life and simply wanted control over her final life decision. Having been so deeply involved in the campaign, Barbara was no stranger to the controversy that once surrounded Washington’s Death with Dignity Act and she summed up how she felt about those who disagreed with her stating, “I think everybody has the right to an opinion, but we as humans have a right to do with what we want with our bodies.”

Barbara’s dedicated advocacy for Death with Dignity will be missed. Her final public message shared through the TV interview are words for all of us to live by: “Be kind to people you don’t know; do some random acts of kindness and the world will be a better place.”

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