End-of-life compassion slowly winning

If you think you might die some day, and you’d like to do it with as much dignity and as little pain as possible, things are looking up. Which is encouraging to me, a believer in end-of-life and reproductive rights both — and progress in one out of two causes is something to cheer about.

credit acpinternist.org
Credit acpinternist.org

The outlook for a compassionate end to this life in the U.S. continues to brighten. In a recent New York Times article summing up advances that are being made in multiple states,reporter Erik Eckholm quotes my good friend Barbara Coombs Lee, President of Compassion and Choices: “There is a quiet, constant demand all over the country for a right to die on one’s own terms, and that demand is likely to grow as the baby boomers age.”

Lee, a baby boomer herself, is in a position to know. She has been at the forefront of the death with dignity movement since it was in its infancy. We first met when I was researching Dying Unafraid (Synergistic Press, 1999) and she was head of Compassion In Dying, headquartered in Seattle. That group had formed, I learned during a weekend spent with leaders and volunteers in the late 1990s, “because we got tired of reading headlines about people with AIDS jumping off of highway overpasses. And we thought there had to be a better way to die.” Compassion In Dying later merged with End-of-Life Choices, which had itself grown out of the somewhat more in-your-face Hemlock Society, to become Compassion and Choices. (And I am proud to have been a part of C&C since its inception as a volunteer, former local board chair, current leadership council member and general cheerleader.)

In those early days, all was not optimism. While Oregon was proving that a physician-aid-in-dying law could work, efforts elsewhere were failing with heartbreaking irregularity. The one most painful to me culminated in the defeat, in 2006, of a bill which would have legalized compassionate dying — in other words, with the aid of one’s physician if one so chose — in California. Assembly members Patty Berg and Lloyd Levine introduced the legislation, and polls showed overwhelming support among Californians, including a majority of California physicians. Victory seemed all but certain, despite a vigorous and expensive campaign against the bill by the Catholic Church (not most Catholics, just Catholic officialdom) and the California Medical Association (of which a small percentage of CA doctors are members.) At the judiciary committee hearing chaired by then CA Senator Joe Dunn  — who had loudly proclaimed his support —  Dunn suddenly had a change of heart. Something about a conversation with his priest, he said in a rambling commentary. Dunn then cast the deciding vote against the bill and it died an unnatural death in committee. A few weeks later Dunn was termed out of the California legislature and took a job — surprise, surprise — as CEO of the California Medical Association. It was not my personal most encouraging experience with the democratic process.

Now, however, sanity is prevailing. The option of choosing a compassionate death is legal in Washington, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico and the cause is gaining in other states. As Steve Heilig, another highly esteemed friend who is co-editor of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, points out in a current letter to the New York Times, “Progress is possible if carefully and ethically pursued.”

If only there could be a careful, ethical pursuit of progress — instead of the ongoing, reckless, politically and religiously-driven backward march we’re seeing — for reproductive rights.