FLORIDA, April 29, 2013 — It is said that one can only be sure of two things in life; the first being death, and the second taxes.
We hear a great deal about tax policy from pundits, politicians, and special interest groups. It is a tiresome, but eminently relevant subject. Why, then, don’t we hear much about end-of-life care? Can anybody honestly say that it doesn’t warrant an even greater amount of public attention?
For decades, America has seen fierce controversy over the idea of dying on one’s own terms. Since the 1990s, laws which allow people to end their lives peacefully, and with the assistance of others, have been passed in two states. More states are now considering a similar course of action.
At the vanguard of the assisted dying movement is the Death with Dignity National Center. In this first part of a discussion with its executive director, Peg Sandeen, the ethic of life being precious is discussed.
She also shares her views on why laws which allow people to deal with their own end-of-life matters are so difficult to pass, why so many oppose the idea of a terminally ill person electing to die with the help of his or her physician, whether or not opposition to assisted dying will eventually lose support, and what impact Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act has had.
Joseph F. Cotto: Life is precious. From your perspective, how is this ethic reflected in the Death with Dignity movement?
Peg Sandeen: People who use these laws very much want to live, but because of terminal illnesses that is no longer an option. Death with Dignity laws allow terminally ill people to live life fully and die peacefully surrounded by their loved ones.
Cotto: The idea that people should make their own decisions about end-of-life matters is not new. However, it can be very difficult to get laws to this effect passed. Why is this?
Sandeen: In terms of culture, death itself is a taboo subject. This creates a challenge not only for affecting real and lasting end-of-life care policy reform, but also in raising awareness about end-of-life care options such as hospice and palliative care which are already available in all states. Even though death is inevitable for all of us, it’s simply easier not to discuss or plan for it. In terms of political advocacy, our movement is very young, in comparison to most social movements today.
It takes time for a social movement to catch on, and in comparison to other issues, we’ve made remarkable progress in a short amount of time.
Cotto: Why, in your opinion, do so many oppose the idea of a terminally ill person electing to die with the help of his or her physician?
Sandeen: Polling throughout the years has been consistent…the majority of Americans support clearly written and safe Death with Dignity laws like the ones in Oregon and Washington. Among the minority of people who don’t, I have found opponents typically fall in one of two groups: either they oppose these laws based on their own religious beliefs and they will never change their minds or they have been misled about what actually is or is not allowed under these laws.
Cotto: Do you believe that, in time, the aforementioned opposition will lose support?
Sandeen: Religiously-based opposition will not change, but as those who misunderstand the law learn the facts about Death with Dignity, the chorus of support throughout the US will continue to grow.
Cotto: Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act was enacted in 1997. Generally speaking, what sort of impact has it had?
Sandeen: Your assertion in the first sentence is slightly incorrect. In 1994, voters made Oregon the first state in the US to enact a law to allow for safeguarded assisted dying. The Oregon legislature sent the law back to the people in 1997, and Oregonians reaffirmed their support for the law. The law was implemented in Oregon for the first time in November, 1997, and has been continuously implemented since then.
We’ve experienced a national legislative and legal battle which continued until 2006 when the US Supreme Court ruled the law was sound. Two short years later in 2008, Washington voters overwhelmingly approved their Death with Dignity Act.
Since then, we’ve seen a national ripple effect with several states considering laws which emulate the groundbreaking Oregon and Washington laws written by our founding board member, Eli Stutsman. Last fall, Massachusetts came within a percent of becoming the third state with a Death with Dignity law, and Vermont lawmakers are closer than ever to passing a law. In this legislative session alone, we’ve seen eight state legislative bodies seriously considering similar laws.
Change is on the horizon.
Far-left? Far-right? Get real: Read more from “The Conscience of a Realist” by Joseph F. Cotto
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