Week 29/2015 in the Death with Dignity Movement

Newspaper Stack

Last week (July 13 to July 19, 2015), as legislatures went into summer recesses the Death with Dignity movement entered a “slow news day” period.

Image by [BarZaN] Qtr.

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center

Why Religiously Unaffiliated Americans Support Death with Dignity

Sarah Levin headshot

This is a guest post by Sarah Levin (the subheadings are ours). Read our open call for guest posts →


Sarah Levin is the Legislative Associate at the Secular Coalition for America, where she oversees the Secular Coalition’s state chapter program. She is passionate about the constitutional separation of church and state and grassroots organizing. Sarah graduated from American University cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in International Studies. Follow the Secular Coalition for America @seculardotorg.

When Tom Manger stood up to testify in support of the End of Life Options Act in Sacramento, he spoke on behalf of all religiously unaffiliated Californians who share his belief in the right of “each individual to face their inevitable death on their own terms – without interference from others.”

“Without interference from others.”

It is unthinkable that the conditions of one’s death, one of the most deeply personal moments in one’s life and the lives of their families, might be influenced by the personal beliefs and ideologies of strangers. But this is the reality confronted by those tragically faced with terminal illnesses in all but five states.

Why do religiously unaffiliated Americans care about death with dignity? What motivated Tom to make a trip to the California state capitol just to testify in support of the End of Life Options Act?

With some issues, like climate change, the religiously unaffiliated rally behind the conviction that science and research should triumph over myths and misinformation. With other issues, like government endorsement of religion, our community unites to protect the constitutional separation of church and state for the benefit of all faiths and none. Death with dignity is a unique issue that speaks to both aspects of our core values, as opponents are both driven by faulty evidence and religious dogma. We strongly believe that laws and policies that impact all Americans must be religiously and dogmatically neutral, based upon science, evidence, and reason, not ideology.

Opposition Arguments Hold No Water

Some opponents of end of life choice claim that death with dignity laws leave vulnerable individuals open to abuses and coercion, and will lead mentally ill people to commit suicide. With the built-in protections of Oregon’s death with dignity law in place for more than 17 years without a single report of coercion, these claims simply don’t hold any water.

Other opponents to death with dignity cite the religious tenet of the sanctity of life. One’s preferences for the condition of his or her own death are based on deeply, sincerely held beliefs and values. These beliefs are just as valid and sincere as others’ religious beliefs and should be treated respectfully with equal standing before the law. It is wrong and unconstitutional to allow the religious beliefs of some to trump the personal, nonreligious beliefs of others.

Speaking to Humanist Values

The letter of the law is not the only reason why this issue touches the religiously unaffiliated community so deeply. The right to compassionate end of life options speaks to the humanist values of dignity, autonomy, and freedom of the individual. Editor in Chief of The Humanist magazine, Jennifer Bardi, eloquently wrote in her letter from the editor on December 22, 2014, “when suffering becomes unbearable and treatment to alleviate that suffering fails or doesn’t exist, it seems the humanist philosophy must support an individual’s right to choose to end his or her life.” The Council for Secular Humanism, a program of the Secular Coalition’s member organization, the Center for Inquiry, explicitly endorses the right to die with dignity in its Affirmation of Humanist Principles.

For many secular activists, this issue touches them personally. Janice Rael, Co-Chair of the Secular Coalition for New Jersey, experienced firsthand the suffering families endure when their loved ones go to desperate lengths to end their lives when there is no compassionate alternative. “My uncle shot himself rather than endure one more day with colon cancer…all because the law wouldn’t let his doctor prescribe him medication to choose a dignified death.” Her personal experience has motivated her to work tirelessly for the passage of the Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Act in New Jersey.

Death with dignity evokes our desire to empower the individual to take control over their own life, free of the burden to prove one’s worth to a supernatural being in order to gain access to a better life after death. At the same time, with this freedom comes a great responsibility to our fellow human beings and to the world we inherited. The tragic stories of people who die a wretched death despite their wishes to die with dignity compel the religiously unaffiliated to act, both out of compassion for the dignity of others and our innate desire to defend individual freedom.

Religious Values vs. Suffering

For the religiously unaffiliated, it comes down to this: will the religious values and personal beliefs of some be imposed on all Americans? Will religiously-based arguments be permissible in a secular debate concerning compassionate options for people who are suffering?

Our answer is no. The Secular Coalition for America, our 17 member organizations, and the 23 percent of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated will stand firmly behind the death with dignity movement and support efforts throughout the country to bring end of life choice to all Americans. We will do so for the sake of individual dignity and to defend the constitutional separation of church and state.

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center

Week 28/2015 in the Death with Dignity Movement

Last week (July 6 to July 12, 2015) the hearing in the California State Assembly Committee on Health was postponed for a second time as the sponsors of SB 128, End of Life Option Act, determined the bill had insufficient votes to pass. Senators Wolk and Monning intend to bring the bill back next year, in the latter half of the 2015-2016 legislative session.

The D.C. Council’s Committee on Health and Human Services held a 10-hour hearing on Councilmember Mary Cheh’s Death with Dignity Act of 2015. The next steps will not be decided until after the Council’s summer recess.


The second postponement of the Assembly Committee on Health hearing on SB 128 generated a lot of news coverage.

District of Columbia


A court hears John Jay Hooker’s case, in which he argues for the state to provide him with the right to die.

Elsewhere & Other Stories

Image by Flood G.

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center

D.C. Council Holds First Hearing on Death with Dignity as New Poll Shows 67% Support in District

A poll released by Lake Research today shows 67 percent of District of Columbia residents (51 percent strongly) support the right of terminally ill adults with less than six months to live to legally obtain medication to end their lives. The findings were released as the District City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee met for the first time on the issue.

“The numbers come as no surprise,” said Peg Sandeen, Executive Director of Death with Dignity National Center, an advocacy organization. “National polls, too, show overwhelming—and growing—support for letting people make their own decisions about how to live their last days.”

Introduced in January 2015 by Councilmember Mary Cheh, D-Ward 3, and endorsed by The Washington Post last month, the Death with Dignity Act of 2015 would allow adult D.C. residents who have had two doctors confirm a terminal diagnosis to fill a prescription medication to end their lives in a peaceful and dignified manner at the time and place of their choosing.

A virtually identical law has been in place in Oregon since 1997. In 18 years, no significant problems have arisen, and it has been used relatively sparingly—only 1,327 times, with fully a third of those who successfully obtain a prescription opting not to use it.

“The Oregon law has been implemented carefully and worked exactly as intended for over 17 years,” Sandeen said. “The time is right for D.C. to adopt this law.”

At Councilmember Cheh’s request, the National Center helped draft, promote, and support the bill. “We’re pleased to see our decades of work continue in this historic Council hearing, as is happening in dozens of statehouses across the country. This is an important step toward providing District residents with the autonomy, freedom and peace of mind that has been a godsend in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont.”

Photo: DC Councilmember Cheh (left) with our Executive Director, Peg Sandeen, at the press conference before today’s hearing.

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center

Week 27/2015 in the Death with Dignity Movement

Last week (June 29 to July 5, 2015), California heated up in advance of tomorrow’s hearing on SB 128, End of Life Option Act at the Assembly Committee on Health. The Catholic Church stepped up the pressure on Catholic Committee members, several of whom are vaccilating on the issue (see our letter campaign).

The Statesman Journal ran another part in the series about the end-of-life journey of our organization’s friend and long-time Death with Dignity advocate, Dr. Peter Rasmussen, MD.


Pro and anti-Death with Dignity advocates stepped up campaigns in the run-up to the first Assembly hearing.

New York

Our friends at Death with Dignity Albany keep their streak of successes going.

Elsewhere and Other Stories

Image by Brittany Randolph.

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center

Sharing Death with Dignity Stories

We have long asked members of our community to tell us why they support Death with Dignity. The most common thread running through the responses is that people are in favor of Death with Dignity because of a heartbreaking personal experience. Over the past few months, as half of state legislatures considered Death with Dignity bills, we’ve received an unprecedented number of stories from people all around the country.

Today on this blog we begin a new series, underscoring, in our supporters’ words, the reasons for Death with Dignity to become a legal end-of-life option everywhere. We present the stories you’re about to read in raw form edited only for clarity and length. Because of next week’s hearing on SB 128 – California End of Life Option Act in the Assembly Committee on Health, we begin with stories from the Golden State, many of which express support for the pending legislation. And though none of the stories reference the upcoming Independence Day, the spirit that we associate with the holiday, of personal liberty, individual self-determination and decision-making, and freedom from outside interference, is palpable.

Why Californians Support Death with Dignity

My father, Mark Gonnella, passed away of colon cancer in California on March 10th, 2007, at the age of 51. I am still haunted by the extent to which he suffered in his final days. I remember my father telling me that he “didn’t want to die this way”; that he “didn’t want to suffer.” If my father had the option of aid in dying medication, he would have taken it. I spent the last week of my father’s life pressing the button of his timed morphine pump every 10 minutes, on the dot. He would still wake up screaming in pain. I wish I didn’t have to remember him that way. I wish he could have died on his own terms.
—Francesca G.

I was diagnosed with lung cancer in June 2014, and I had a lobectomy. I’m holding my breath at this time waiting on my cat scan. I don’t want to drown in my own fluids. Chemo was too strong for me, so much so that I once passed out on the way to the kitchen in the middle of the night. I would not end my life unless I felt the worst was starting. I don’t want to die, but I also don’t want a long excruciating death either. Why should I live in pain?
—Connie C.

My father passed away 5 weeks ago today with terminal cancer. He was 91 and had been healthy most of his life. He went to the gym 6 days a week and church every Sunday. We had hospice at home to help but it was a painful and horrible death. My dad never wanted to die like that. When my dad asked his long time doctor to please help him, “give me a pill,” the doctor leaned forward and said, “I wish I could, Calvin, but the only way for you to speed up the process, is to quit eating and drinking.” From that day forward my dad only drank enough water to get his pain pills down. It took thirteen days for him to pass away. I don’t understand how anyone who has watched someone they love die like that would not support a death with dignity law. Why do we allow someone else’s belief dictate our right to choose how we pass on? Thank you for supporting the SB-128 bill.
—David S.

I support Death with Dignity after watching my 83 year old mother-in-law suffer for 5 weeks (so far) as she dies a humiliating third world death of starvation and dehydration. Upon being diagnosed a year ago with terminal cancer, she lived her life to the fullest. She told her doctor and family her wishes to end her life when the time came. But when we engaged hospice we were informed that if we left the medications she wanted within her reach, we would be accused of criminal neglect. Please give our elderly the option, should they choose it, to end their lives on their own terms. They don’t deserve the pain and suffering.
—Lisa T.

My brother was diagnosed with ALS 7 months ago. We have no family history of the disease- I’m hoping I don’t get it He is detiorating SO FAST it is Painful to watch. He has not talked about suicide but he is kind of depressed. I think he should have the right to choose that option if he wants.
—Margo D.

I have seen too many people suffering needlessly and it’s not going to happen to me. I have emphysema, drugs aren’t helping. I will not get to the point where I’m gasping for air with no relief nor will I be a burden on my husband not only physically but financially. Instead of committing suicide, which may fail, I want the option of assisted death, ending the pain. Many physicians want to see Death with Dignity enacted, but as it stands now their hands are tied.
—Karen S.

I have cared for three of my closest family members that have gone home before me with terminal cancer dying the slow painful ending: my husband at only the age of 59, father, and years later mother who passed in hospice, finding no peace. I do not want my end to be the same story. My husband would have very much been for this bill to pass. Mother would say daily, “I want to die, let me go…” She was 92 and should have had the choice to leave with dignity. No one knows the pain they feel or the pain of the caregivers who stay behind to live with those memories. I do not want to leave that kind of memories for my children and grandchildren.
—Saundre L.C.

I’m just getting diagnosed with lung cancer on July 10th. My doctor has already told me about it and what to expect. I don’t want to die curled up in a fetal position totally knocked out and others having to care for my basic private needs. Please pass this bill so we can die while we still have our dignity.
—Connie K.

Had death with dignity been available in CA, it would have saved my 97 year old mother from her last two years of pain and misery!
—Frank K.

Both of my parents died horrific deaths, Dad nine years ago and Mom eight months ago.

My Dad was a brilliant architect before he had a stroke. One afternoon, we were trying to get him to the bathroom. He collapsed on top of me on the floor and I held him in my lap while Mom called 911. Dad wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. He died in my arms. EMT’s confirmed he was gone, then asked, “Do you have a DNR?” Mom and Dad hadn’t finalized their medical directives so EMTs started resuscitation and revived his heart. Dad never would have wanted to be resuscitated only to suffer. Death with Dignity would have been an enormous gift to him and to our family.

My Mom lived eight years after Dad died and lived in our home the last three years. During these years she had serious health problems. Her doctor gave her a choice: come to the hospital and he’d arrange surgery, or do nothing and die. He told her there was an 60% chance she wouldn’t survive the surgery. Mom made the choice to stay home and die. She said she wished she could just take a pill and end it. All I could do was comfort her, watch her suffer and wait for death.

I became an advocate for Death with Dignity after experiencing my parents’ deaths. Both of them were conscientious people yet our laws denied them the right to make decisions about their own deaths. It’s difficult to help a parent die. In our culture, no one teaches us how to face death. It’s time our laws supported end of life preparation through Death with Dignity.
—Joy C.

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center

Week 26/2015 in the Death with Dignity Movement

Last week (June 22 to June 28, 2015), the California Assembly Health Committee hearing on Senate Bill 128 – End of Life Option Act was rescheduled to July 7 while the bill’s sponsors seek to round up the votes.

The Economist magazine featured a themed issue, “The right to die,” with a number of articles:


The postponement of the Assembly Health Committee hearing on SB 128 generated a flurry of editorials urging the Assemblymembers to pass the bill.

New Hampshire

After Governor Hasson vetoed a bill that would establish a task force exploring end-of-life options in the state, calls re-emerged calling for Death with Dignity to be legalized.

Elsewhere and Other Stories

Image by jun.skywalker.

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center

Week 25/2015 in the Death with Dignity Movement

Last week (June 15 to June 21, 2015), following our presentation to the editorial board, The Washington Post endorsed Death with Dignity nationwide, including the bill currently pending in the DC Council.


A breather here between the historic Senate vote and the upcoming Assembly Health Committee hearing (now rescheduled to July 7).


The Maine Death with Dignity bill, LD 1270, fell short of passage by a single vote in the Senate.

Elsewhere & Other Stories

Image by Alex.

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center

The Washington Post Endorses Death with Dignity

There’s huge news today in our mission to give people more options about how to live their final days. And we urgently need your help.

When I visited with District of Columbia Councilmember Mary Cheh earlier this year, there was a thick binder on her desk labeled, “Death with Dignity 2011.” I knew we had found the strong ally we needed—one who had been thinking about this issue for years.

Today, just a week after we went to the Washington Post to make our case, the paper’s influential editorial board strongly endorsed her bill, the District of Columbia Death with Dignity Act of 2015. You can read the endorsement here: “A humane way to end life,” The Washington Post

The bill will give terminally ill DC residents with less than six months to live the option to end their lives at a time and place of their own choosing. It’s written carefully and narrowly, with plenty of safeguards. In fact, it’s modeled on the Oregon law that has worked flawlessly since going into effect in 1997.

Here’s why we need your help today.

Share Your Story

The bill is on the fast track. A hearing has already been scheduled for July 10.

If the bill is going to pass, the DC City Council needs to hear why you support Death with Dignity. Personal stories—from terminally ill patients, their family members, physicians and others—have been indispensable in passing Death with Dignity laws in other states.

You’ve been a steadfast supporter. Would you please tell us why by sharing your story in this simple form?

If you know anyone— a friend, a relative—with a story of their own, I’m asking you to please forward this message to them. Every story will make a real difference. We need all the stories we can get. And we’re counting on you.

Sign the Petition

In the coming weeks, we’ll bring you updates on the status of the bill and the stories we’re hearing from people who want the freedom to live their final days in peace and comfort, with their family and loved ones around them.

In the meantime, please sign this petition, asking the DC Councilmembers to support B21-0031 – Death with Dignity Act of 2015.

It’s time for DC to take its place as the fourth jurisdiction to let its qualified residents choose Death with Dignity. We’re working day and night to make it possible.

I firmly believe we can pass this law—with your continued support and commitment.

Let’s make this happen together.

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center

Death with Dignity and People with Disabilities

Joan Tollifson portrait

This is a guest post by Joan Tollifson (the subheadings and links are ours). Read our open call for guest posts →


Joan Tollifson is an author and teacher who was active in the disability rights movement and the independent living movement. She was a participant in the historic month-long 504 Occupation in 1977 of the San Francisco federal building for disability rights, worked at the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, and has written numerous articles on disability, several of which have appeared these anthologies on disability: Staring Back, Voices from the Edge, and With the Power of Each Breath. Disability was also a major theme in her first book, Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, a spiritual memoir. She is the author of four books on non-duality and meditation. She lives in Ashland, Oregon. Find her online at www.JoanTollifson.com.

Much of the opposition to physician-assisted dying comes from disability rights activists who falsely assume that legalizing the right to die poses a danger to them and undermines the value of their lives. Some people with disabilities fear that physician-assisted dying is a slippery slope and that if we legalize it in any form, soon we’ll be killing all disabled babies at birth, people will be bumping off their aging grandparents to get out of caring for them, and everyone in a wheelchair will feel obligated to kill themselves so as not to be a burden. Some people with disabilities hear in the right-to-die movement the old message that we disabled folks would be better off dead and that our lives are not worth living.

I understand from my own life experience where these fears come from. I am an older person, and I was born with a disability (my father was offered the chance to smother me at birth as a result). I have also had many friends over the years with severe disabilities, as well as friends who have lived well with serious chronic pain and incapacitation. But in the case of right-to die legislation, I feel that these concerns are enormously exaggerated and actually quite paranoid and misinformed.

Safeguards in Death with Dignity laws

The current laws that allow physician-assisted dying, or death with dignity, are all very carefully crafted with many safeguards. No one behind these laws is arguing that anyone “should” end their lives, nor does having the right to choose death in certain situations mean that elders or people with disabilities are worthless or better off dead. This is about choice, not coercion or devaluing the lives of elders and people with disabilities. I seriously doubt that right-to-die laws will result in mass exterminations of elders and people with disabilities, nor do I believe that most people would allow that to happen. That certainly hasn’t been the case here in Oregon, where we do have right to die under certain, very limited conditions.

Questioning the Prolonging Life at All Costs

I question the idea that our goal as human beings should be to prolong life at all costs. This kind of thinking comes from a fear of death and a misunderstanding of life. My mother, who loved life passionately, was a strong believer in the right to die. She had no desire to linger beyond the point where life was no longer enjoyable, and she said over and over in her final years that she was ready to go. She had no fear of death. Luckily, she died without a prolonged period of excruciating pain and incapacitation. But not everyone is so lucky.

I have no desire to spend a long time incapacitated and in excruciating pain before I die. I’ve watched loved ones go through all of that, and I know it is no picnic. I saw my aunt being forced to eat in the nursing home when her body clearly wanted to stop eating so she could let go. I don’t have children or siblings or a partner to take care of me in my old age if I become debilitated, and most of my friends are my age or older. I wouldn’t want any of them to have to dedicate their remaining time and energy to taking care of me when recovery is not an option and the quality of my life is (in my estimation) miserable.

We spend an astronomical amount of money in this country on end-of-life care, often on extraordinary measures prolonging the end of life with feeding tubes and ventilators. In my case, I’d much rather have that money spent elsewhere—there are so many things it could be used for instead. I respect the right of others to have different priorities and to make different end of life choices than I would, and I’d like them to give me the same consideration and freedom. I don’t know what’s ahead for me—none of us do. I know what I think I want, and I’ve drawn up my legal papers and left instructions accordingly. At the very least, I’d like the choice.

A friend of mine who died of cancer a few years ago was very happy to be here in Oregon where Death with Dignity is legal. It wasn’t easy to get the prescription, it was a long process. My friend had to jump through many hoops to get those meds: Two doctors had to sign off, forms had to be filled out, people came to talk with my friend and her partner. And she had less than the required prognosis here in Oregon of no more than 6 months to live. In the end, she didn’t use the drugs to end her life. She kept saying it was so interesting how everything was falling away, and she ended up letting the dying process take its course. But she was very glad she had the choice.

In Support of Proposed Legislation

I hope that the legislation supporting the right to die that is currently moving through the state legislature in California and elsewhere will be successful. Those disability groups who are siding with the religious right on this issue don’t speak for all of us with disabilities. Many elders and people with disabilities very much want physician-assisted dying to be legalized.

Death is part of life, not a horrible thing. I love life, but I’m not afraid of death either. Those who feel differently are free to prolong their lives in every way possible for as long as possible. As a deeply religious person (in the truest sense of religion), I see no problem at all with ending my life at a time of my own choosing, if and when, in my judgment, that becomes the best option for myself and all concerned.

View full post on Death with Dignity National Center