Extend death with dignity nationwide

More than once, a reporter has asked me what’s the best and worst thing about my job at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Without much hesitation I usually answer: winning and losing lawsuits!

But the hardest thing has actually been the death of FFRF members, the early co-founders and activists whom my mother, Dan and I have worked with over the years. They all contributed so much to the freethought movement.

Mourning the death of someone you love is hard enough, without the knowledge that the person you love suffered terribly and unnecessarily in dying. FFRF had barely lifted off the ground as a national group when Ruth Hurmence Green died at age 64 in 1981.

Ruth’s book, The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible, was the first book FFRF published and is still a brisk seller. She served as board secretary, was a wonderful idea generator and was my mother’s and my dear friend. 

Ruth, too, fought cancer, first of the breast, then skin and throat, enduring 37 radiation treatments. Her cancer was in remission when we met her. When excruciatingly painful throat cancer returned, Ruth bravely hid the pain from friends and family, carefully stockpiling pain pills, until July 7, 1981, when she took her own life after sending her husband out on an errand.

Her final letter to my mother, mailed the morning she took her life, read: “Freedom From must grow and prosper . . . freedom depends upon freethinkers.”

It was painful to comtemplate a Freedom From Religion Foundation without Ruth Green. Worse was contemplating how she must have suffered by forgoing pain medication in order to save enough pills. The inhumanity of our society toward the dying forced Ruth to be furtive, squirrel away pills and die alone with no chance for family and friends to say goodbye.

She and so many others with terminal illnesses should have been afforded the same right and dignity as Cliff Richards, who had the peace of mind provided by Washington’s death with dignity law. It’s so obvious that civil rights should not be dependent on the state you happen to live in. 

So little progress has been made on this front. In 1990, Freethought Today published an important piece by Jan Hitchborn, the daughter of one of our members. Jan wrote about the death of her father, Read Schuster, a member of FFRF and the Hemlock Society.

Read had developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. In Read’s case, the disease started in his throat, so that he gradually lost the power to speak. Then he choked and coughed as he ate. Then he could scarcely swallow his Ensure.

Although he could still get up, dress himself and even drive, and although his mind stayed sharp and alert, he faced death by starvation, choking or asphyxiation. In September 1990, less than a year after his diagnosis, when he could no longer lift his leg from gas pedal to brake, he mustered all his inner strength, got himself into the garden shed, closed the door and shot himself in the head.

The area was classed as a crime scene, and although his family was grateful he was at peace, they were left with the horror of the cleaning up.

“He should have been able to die whole, in his bed, with us to hold his hands telling him again how much he meant to us, how much he had touched our lives. He should have been able to take an injection to peacefully slip off to sleep,” wrote Jan.

Only Washington, Oregon and Vermont have passed referendums or laws authorizing prescriptions for lethal doses by two doctors who agree the patient will die within six months. Courts in Montana and New Mexico have recently approved such aid. Even these few states granting death with dignity rights do not permit injections for the terminal patient, such as Read, who are too sick to swallow the necessary pills.

Among Read Schuster’s goodbye letters were those to doctors and the police department, lecturing the authorities “about a society which boxes terminally ill people into a corner.” “My dad was able to close his life. But he should have been able to do it with an injection. There should have been a Dr. Kevorkian for him,” Jan wrote.

Jan’s moving article can be read in its entirety at ffrf.org/news/timely-topics (scroll to “There ought to be a law”).

Jan’s piece was accompanied by a short plea by Anne Nicol Gaylor, FFRF president emerita. “Prolonging dying is a religious idea,” she wrote. “Those who wish to die painlessly, at an appointed time, should have that right.”  — Annie Laurie Gaylor

Freedom From Religion Foundation