Peg Sandeen on the essential reason to support death with dignity laws

The executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center also talks about the popularity of death with dignity laws and much more. Photo: Death with Dignity Protest

FLORIDA, April 30, 2013 — Debate over the idea of dying on one’s own terms has captivated America for decades. Since the 1990s, laws which allow people to end their lives peacefully, and with the assistance of others, have been passed in two states. 

This is often called “death with dignity”.

Are more state-level death with dignity laws expected to pass during the years ahead? Very often, when people think of the Death with Dignity movement, they associate it with assisted suicide. What can be said about this?

If people could be given one essential reason to support death with dignity laws, what would it be?

In this second part of our discussion, Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center, explains. She also tells us about how she first become involved in the Death with Dignity movement, as well as what she believes the movement’s most important accomplishment has been.


Joseph F. Cotto: Do you expect to see more state-level death with dignity laws passed during the years ahead? 

Peg Sandeen: The current efforts in Vermont and last fall’s close election result in Massachusetts are only the beginning of a larger national conversation about how we die. People everywhere are learning the safeguards in the Oregon and Washington laws work. We now have 15 years of data from Oregon and the Washington annual reports both confirming these laws are safe and working as intended with no unintended consequences.

Cotto: Very often, when people think of the Death with Dignity movement, they associate it with assisted suicide. What are your thoughts on this?

Sandeen: Assisted suicide is a broad, undefined term, which more accurately refers to criminals like William Francis Melchert-Dinkel not physicians practicing lawfully under Oregon’s and Washington’s laws. In order to make a request for prescribed medication to hasten death, a person must have a terminal diagnosis with six months or fewer to live. The person is in the process of dying and seeking the option to hasten an already inevitable and imminent death. For this reason, the request to hasten a death isn’t equated with suicide.

None of the moral, existential, or religious connotations of suicide apply when the patient’s primary objective is not to end an otherwise open-ended span of life, but to find dignity in an already impending exit from this world. Individuals who use the law are likely to be offended by accusations of assisted suicide, because they’re participating in an act to shorten the agony of their final hours, not killing themselves. Cancer (or another underlying condition) is killing them.

Cotto: If you could give people one essential reason to support death with dignity laws, what would it be?

Sandeen: The greatest human freedom is to live, and die, according to one’s own desires and beliefs.

Cotto: How did you first become involved in the Death with Dignity movement?

Sandeen: Personally, I’m a social worker, and early in my career, I worked with people who were dying from complications of HIV disease. It was a horrendous health crisis at the time.  People experienced long, protracted deaths, begging for relief; some ended their lives violently to escape the physical suffering.  It was painful for both family members and the patients. I could not help but see the need for a policy-level solution to the social problem of protracted dying.

Cotto: What would you say has been the Death with Dignity movement’s most important accomplishment?

Sandeen: Without question, the biggest accomplishment is the development of model legislation that has stood the test of time. The Oregon Death with Dignity Act was revolutionary, and flawless from the beginning. I teach a Public Policy class to graduate students in Social Work, and I cannot think of another groundbreaking piece of legislation, federal or state, that works without the need for legislative amendments or tweaking.  

Far-left? Far-right? Get realRead more from “The Conscience of a Realist” by Joseph F. Cotto 


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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