Dying With Dignity: A Basic Human Right

As I sit down to write this article, I solemnly reflect upon what Queen Elizabeth II referred to as an annus horribilis, a terrible year. Between April 2017 and February 2018, four of my friends died. As February turned to March and April, I dreaded the count going up; as if the universe were consciously aware of an Earth-centric calendar and possessed a malicious intent to sadistically inflict additional grief.

The second and fourth friends to die were both taken by cancer. The third friend was fit, just past his mid-40s, and was taken suddenly from a blood clot in the brain. His death left me reeling as it was so unexpected, and because we were good friends and of the same age. As an atheist, the traditional platitudes of comfort available to theistic mourners were unavailable. I struggled for days to come to terms with his abrupt departure, when I finally had a breakthrough, captured in this previous article.

The first to die at the end of April (only a week before the second) is the subject of this piece. My friend David was stricken with ALS and diagnosed in 2016. Within a year he had lost his voice and his ability to use his hands. David had founded the local chapter of Skeptics in the Pub and our atheist society, creating a community for like-minded free thinkers; and as a champion for freedom without religion and a Canadian citizen, David opted to take his own life under Canada’s assisted-dying laws, which had only been passed the year before.

Just before David ended his life with his family and his doctor by his side, I just happened to be asked by another if I would help a terminally ill friend end their suffering. I responded without hesitation, absolutely. I was able to relate the story of David and how, if needed, I would choose to help end the pain of a loved-one without any religious psychological baggage.

Known by many names, right to die, dying with dignity, physician-assisted suicide, medical assistance in dying (Canada), this basic fundamental human right is not available in most jurisdictions of the world. It is legal only in a handful of countries: Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Switzerland; and in seven U.S. regions: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Washington D.C.

Dying with dignity legislation is often challenged by those in faith-based communities, who, due to their religious sentiment, object on the basis that their traditions tell them life is somehow sacred. Darwinian evolution would suggest that Homo sapiens should be considered no more sacred than any other form of life, simply because we are consciously aware. Indeed, scientists have proven many animals species display consciousness, and the ethical questions that raises about their humane treatment. Human life is no more sacred than that of “a bug or a rabbit.”

How and why humans are sacred is never adequately explained by theists, except for them to tautologically cite their scriptures which state we are created in God’s image; which, somehow, imparts a sacred status to humans above all other lifeforms. To voluntarily extinguish the sacred life which their particular brand of deity has granted us, raises the specter of mortal sins and irrational fears of eternal punishment in the afterlife; all concepts invented out of whole cloth and bequeathed to Western societies by the early fathers of the Catholic Church.

Someone dying of a terminal illness should not be forced to suffer a prolonged, painful, lingering death, because of the beliefs of another demographic. This is a humanist issue worth fighting for. It is time for the right to die to become a universal human right, and for religion to stop injecting its beliefs into the public policy sphere out of their misplaced sense of love for human dignity. If they truly valued human dignity, they would let those who choose to do so, have the right to die with some.

For information, check the regulations in your local jurisdiction to discover what resources may be available to you or your loved one. A selection of organizations in English-speaking countries is provided below:

Australia

Canada

New Zealand

United Kingdom

United States

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