National Center Board Member to Present at Biennial Right to Die Conference

George Eighmey
George Eighmey

People the world over desire to control their own end-of-life care. While the Death with Dignity National Center’s focus is on supporting and promoting US Death with Dignity laws, there are groups across the globe who work toward developing similar laws in their countries. Many of these groups, like us, are members of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies.

Since 1976, Federation members have come together every other year to discuss the global right to die movement. This year’s conference—kicking off September 17th—will be the first one in the US since the Boston gathering in 2000. Chicago will host this year, and Death with Dignity National Center board member George Eighmey will be among the featured speakers at the conference.

George will present on our work to pass the third US Death with Dignity law in the state of Vermont. Vermont’s law was the first law of its kind on the East Coast, and the first passed through the legislative process. This historic achievement came to fruition after over 10 years of dedicated work by us and the local grassroots group, Patient Choices Vermont.

A major shift in the state came when dedicated supporter Peter Shumlin assumed the governorship in 2011. His outspoken support for Death with Dignity on the campaign trail in 2010 bolstered support throughout the state, and encouraged his colleagues in both legislative chambers to be more vocal in their own support.

In the lead up to his re-election in 2012, Governor Shumlin took the unprecedented step of making the legislation part of his campaign platform. Shortly after his re-election, he told reporters signing the Death with Dignity bill was one of four social issues he saw as a priority during his second term.

No doubt about it, Governor Shumlin’s leadership in supporting the legislation moved the foundation we built with our partners over the years to the final step of codifying Death with Dignity in the state’s statute last year. If you’re attending the conference, don’t miss George’s presentation on Vermont’s new law, how it came to be, and its impact on the movement throughout the US.

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Board Member Spotlight: George Eighmey, JD

George Eighmey
George Eighmey

As a young boy back in Waterloo, IA, George Eighmey (pronounced Amy) helped care for his dying aunt. He remembers her begging for relief from her suffering, but not receiving it. He thought then it was cruel no one was able to comfort her. Later, while in high school, George worked part-time as an orderly in a nursing home where he saw excruciating pain and suffering go untreated. He was told “redemptive suffering” cleansed the soul and assured one entry to heaven. By then, he began to question why patients had to endure this treatment when there were means available to ease their condition and would allow them to die peacefully. His aunt’s death and the nursing home experience made an indelible impression on George that in many ways led him into his careers.

After a four year stint in the Air Force as a weather instructor, George enrolled in college using the GI Bill and graduated from the University of Illinois Schools of Administration and Law. As an attorney, he went on to practice in the areas of estate and family law, working for people facing day to day problems and end-of-life issues. His youthful memories formed his belief that people who planned for the future, including their inevitable demise, would be able to live life to its fullest. They’d know when their final days arrived they’d be prepared and so would their families.

George was licensed to practice before the Ninth and Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Oregon and Illinois Supreme Courts, the US Tax Court, and the US Federal Appeals Court before retiring. During his practice years in Illinois, he was president of the county bar association and managing partner of his first law firm. He also served on the Urbana, Illinois city council as an elected member. He was Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus and served on his church’s council allowing him to provide assistance to those in need.

In 1982, he made the decision to alter his life course after personally experiencing discrimination and witnessing it against others. He moved to Portland, OR where he continued to practice law, but also became more involved in human rights activities. He was elected to the board of a facility treating people suffering from AIDS in 1988 and became its chair in 1990. In that position, he heard about far too many young men ending their lives tragically when their disease deprived them of any quality of life. He remembered his earlier years back in Waterloo and was determined there had to be a better way to end one’s suffering when one’s death was imminent.

His opportunity to make a difference occurred in 1993 when he was appointed to the Oregon State House of Representatives, where he served from 1993-1999. During his term as an Oregon state representative he acted as vice-chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Minority Whip, and senior Democrat leader where he was able to assist in the passage of the Death with Dignity Act, Medicinal Marijuana and Alternative Medicine laws. In 1997, during the successful second campaign to support Oregon’s right to die law, George became one of several statewide spokespeople for it. After the law went into effect, he was hired as Executive Director of Compassion & Choices of Oregon; an organization dedicated to providing nonjudgmental information on end-of-life options. He served in that position for 12 years until retiring in September, 2010. He continues to lecture on the subject of Oregon’s assisted death law throughout the US and most recently he testified in favor of the legislative passage of an Oregon type law in Vermont. As a result of his experience and recent activities, the board of Death with Dignity National Center invited him to become a member. He’s now serving as Death with Dignity National Center’s newest member and contributing to its efforts to pass Oregon type Death with Dignity laws in other states.

George is an advisory board member of Equity Foundation, the Bosco-Milligan Historic Preservation Foundation and co-author of a chapter in the book Compassion in Dying—Stories of Dignity and Choice. He’s received honors from several human rights and attorney organizations over his lifetime including from such diverse groups as Right to Pride, Oregon Gay and Lesbian Law Association, Our House of Portland, Legal Secretaries Association, and others. He and his life-partner, Peter, a land use lawyer, raised George’s two children, along with George’s former wife Marie. They sadly lost their son Greg in 2006, but are very much comforted by having their daughter Jasmine, a math and science teacher, and her husband Jeff, a sales executive, in their lives. In retirement, George remains active not only with his many causes, but enjoying outdoor activities and regular trips to NYC to enjoy Broadway plays.

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Board Member Spotlight: Betty Rollin

Betty Rollin
Betty Rollin

We’ve spotlighted several of our staff members. Today, we would like to shine the light on one of our board members, Betty Rollin.

Betty Rollin is a TV correspondent, accomplished author, and sought-after speaker. A former correspondent for NBC News, her special reports for Nightly News included a series on the Native Americans of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, which won both the duPont and Emmy awards. She now contributes reports for PBS’ Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

Rollin is the author of seven books, including First, You Cry, a moving story—the first of its kind—about her breast cancer and mastectomy. Published in 1976 and re-published in 2000 in honor of the author’s 25th “cancer anniversary”, it received wide critical acclaim and was made into a television movie starring Mary Tyler Moore as Ms. Rollin.

Her bestseller Last Wish, published in 1985 and republished in 1998 recounts the story of her mother’s request for help in dying and
began for her what has been a 20-year involvement in the Death with Dignity movement. One critic called it “a document of personal compassion and public importance.” The book has been published in 18 foreign countries and was made into a TV movie, which aired on ABC in 1992, starring Patty Duke and Maureen Stapleton.

Her most recent book, published by Random House is Here’s the Bright Side: of Failure, Fear, Cancer, Divorce and other Bum Raps.

Rollin first joined NBC in 1972 as a reporter for the news magazine, Chronolog and during 1972 she was the on-air theater critic for WNBC-TV, New York. She later created and anchored a series of NBC News’ special programs for and about women titled Women Like Us. In January, 1973, she was named a correspondent for NBC News. In this position, she reported on human-interest stories, which remain her main focus as a journalist. In 1982, she became a contributing correspondent for ABC News Nightline. She left that position to write Last Wish and returned to NBC News in 1984.

Prior to her television career, Betty Rollin was an associate feature editor and staff writer for Vogue magazine. Following that, she became a senior editor for Look magazine, where she remained until the publication was discontinued in 1971. She has contributed articles to many national magazines, including The New York Times where she was also a Hers columnist.

A native New Yorker, Rollin is a graduate of Fieldston Ethical Culture School in Riverdale, NY and Sarah Lawrence College. She and her husband, Dr. Harold M. Edwards, a mathematician, live in Manhattan.

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Board Members Make Leadership Gift to Dignity 2012

Signed Petitions, photo by Michael Clarke, Dignity 2012
Signed Petitions, photo by Michael Clarke, Dignity 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I returned from a trip to Boston where I participated in strategic planning meetings for the Dignity 2012 Ballot Question Committee, and I facilitated a board meeting for the Death with Dignity National Center. Earlier, I shared an interview I conducted with Michael Clarke, campaign manager, while I was in Boston, but I wanted to continue to share my insights into progress in Massachusetts with supporters of the Death with Dignity National Center.

Massachusetts has an indirect ballot initiative process, meaning the legislature has an opportunity to act on the proposed initiative before it goes to the people for a vote. I was in the Bay State during the final week when the legislature had an opportunity to act, and it was clear they wouldn’t move the bill forward. The campaign, now in its second signature gathering phase, intends to gather 20,000 signatures before July.

Signature gathering is expensive in Massachusetts because of the regulations governing the process. The time frames for gathering are short, and individuals who sign during the first phase of signature gathering can’t sign during the second. The campaign has to sort the signatures by township, and the town clerks have to certify all of the signatures before the campaign can turn them into the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

During the Death with Dignity National Center board meeting, board members invited members of the Dignity 2012 steering committee to several joint gatherings to address the question of paying for this second signature gathering phase. After much deliberation, members of both groups agreed to personally contribute over $80,000 to this effort. This was phenomenally generous, and arose out of a personal commitment on behalf of each individual to help ensure Death with Dignity would be put before the Massachusetts voters.

I cannot tell you how proud I am to be a part of these discussions and to see evidence of a leadership commitment to this effort—the most important one in the Death with Dignity movement today.

The Dignity 2012 campaign is in full swing these days, having gathered approximately 20% of the needed signatures for the second round of signature gathering. Michael Clarke tells me they’ll have an office open and ready for volunteers and interns in the next month.

I’ve been amazed by the all-out support from those living in Massachusetts and the grassroots nature of this campaign. Nearly 400 individuals have contributed to Dignity 2012 so far, and the issue isn’t even on the ballot yet. It’s my sense the coming weeks and months will show exponentially more public conversations about the issue and growth in the grassroots campaign. The people of Massachusetts are just beginning to grapple with this critical end-of-life option, and as they do so, more and more of them will rush to support the campaign.

It’s going to be an exciting summer.

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