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Death with Dignity: The Right to Choose


"Everyone owes nature one death"   ~Sigmund Freud

Humans are living longer and longer – especially in first world countries. This is due to numerous factors. Some are very positive, like the results of good life style choices: eating well, exercising, and leading stimulating and productive later lives. We have also been benefiting from more modern medical interventions.

However, these advances can have their dark side. Many elders who in an earlier time would have died naturally are now able to be kept alive longer but in unhappy and uncomfortable situations. This has lead to the sad stereotype of old folks wasting away in nursing homes or being hooked up to machines in hospitals with no hope of recovery.

Many Baby Boomers have watched this happen to their parents and don’t want it for themselves. So what happens when we don’t choose any more interventions and we find ourselves lingering in a physically disabled, mentally compromised (extreme dementia) or pain-racked body? Should we have the right to end our life if we choose? Many people think yes. While CEN is not taking a stand either way, we feel it important to shine a spotlight on this very timely discussion.

Below is some information from organizations addressing the choice of what has come to be called “a death with dignity”.

Legal Actions

Three states have enacted Death with Dignity laws: Oregon, Washington, and Vermont. These laws allow mentally competent, terminally ill adult state residents to voluntarily request and receive a prescription medication to hasten their death.

  • Oregon voters approved their Death with Dignity Act in 1994 and confirmed their support in 1997, at which time the law went into effect.
  • The voters of Washington passed their law in 2008, and it was implemented in 2009 after no credible legal challenges.
  • Vermont became the third state with a Death with Dignity law in 2013, and the law went into effect immediately after Governor Shumlin signed it on May 20th of that year.

Montana doesn't currently have a law safeguarding physician-assisted death. In December 2009, however, Montana's Supreme Court ruled that nothing in the state law prohibited a physician from honoring a terminally ill, mentally competent patient's request for prescription medication to hasten the patient's death. Since the ruling, several bills have been introduced to codify or ban the practice, but none of those bills has as of yet become law.

What about Suicide?

HandingFlowers.jpgRegarding legal or moral concerns about sanctioning or assisting with suicide, because the person is in the process of dying and seeking the option to hasten an already inevitable and imminent death, the request to hasten that person’s 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 rather to find dignity in an already impending exit from this world. Such patients are participating in an act to shorten the agony of their final hours, not killing themselves. Cancer or some other underlying condition is killing them.

There are conversations happening worldwide, concerning changing the use of the term suicide in cases where death may be accelerated due to great pain, fear of extreme dementia, and just being ready to die at the end of a long and fulfilling life.

Death with Dignity National Center and Final Exodus are two organizations offering further information about the issues of suicide and death with dignity.

A National Movement

Compassion & Choices works with individuals and allied organizations throughout America to:

  • Make aid in dying an open, legitimate option recognized throughout the medical field and permitted in more states.
  • Increase patient control and reduce unwanted interventions at the end of life.
  • Pass additional laws ensuring full information and access to all end-of-life care options.
  • Normalize accurate, unbiased language throughout the end-of-life choice discussion (“aid in dying” instead of “assisted suicide”).
  • Establish aid in dying as a prime motivator in voter decision making.
  • Support the expansion of the end-of-life choice movement and exert a leadership role in it.

Compassion & Choices offers free consultation, planning resources, referrals and guidance, and across the nation they work to protect and expand options at the end of life. For over thirty years they have reduced people’s suffering and given them some control in their final days – even when injury or illness takes their voice.

A Global Movement

In the United Kingdom. The main long-term objective of Society for Old Age Rational Suicide (SOARS) is to get the law eventually changed in the UK so that very elderly, mentally competent individuals who are suffering unbearably from various health problems (even though none of them may be “terminal”) are allowed to receive a doctor’s assistance to die, if this is their persistent choice.

Elsewhere in Europe. In four other European countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and Switzerland), doctor-assisted dying is legally possible for mentally competent individuals who are terminally-ill, severely disabled, or very elderly with medical problems. See Right to Die Europe.

Elsewhere around the World. The World Federation of Right to Die Societies has information about the death-with-dignity movement taking place all over the world.