Since 1938, under one name or another, the Society for the Right to Die has worked through the legislative and judicial processes to ensure that Americans could refuse medical treatment that would prolong their lives against their will.
In 1967, the Euthanasia Educational Fund later to become Concern for Dying was founded to educate Americans about end-of-life choices that were already facing increasing numbers of people.
In recent years, the two groups have worked side by side separate organizations tackling different aspects of their common cause of helping Americans come to grips with life-and-death decisions about medical care.
Now the groups have officially merged into a new organization called Choice in Dying an apt description of the organization's ultimate goal.
The new organization combines the strengths of both groups. As part of its focus on legislative and legal action, the Society for the Right to Die has provided millions of Americans with forms for advanced directives living wills or health-care proxies that fit the laws of each state.
Currently the organization is responding to about a quarter of a million requests a year for documents.
Meanwhile, Concern for Dying has been carrying out educational campaigns aimed at health care professionals as well as the public. These efforts will continue, focusing on three general areas.
Choice in Dying is already actively involved in training health care professionals, lawyers, patient advocates and others in the procedures required by the new Patient Self-Determination Act, which mandates that all health care institutions receiving federal funds discuss living wills and other advance directives with all patients upon their admission to the facility. The act, which went into effect Dec. 1, does not require patients to sign advance directives, but it is expected to greatly increase Americans' awareness of these documents.
A second area of concern centers on the debate about active euthanasia. Choice in Dying takes no stand on this issue, and it remained neutral during this fall's heated campaign in Washington state to pass an initiative that would have legalized physician-assisted suicide.
According to spokesman Joel Roselyn, the organization believes the country has a long way to go before reaching a thoughtful consensus on this issue. Choice in Dying sees its role as "helping to move the conversation along rather than putting forth a position," Roselyn says. "We don't want to see the debate get bogged down in politics or in extremist positions."
A third important concern is the relief of pain an issue that feeds directly into the euthanasia debate. For all the wonders of modern medicine, pain management gets short shrift from doctors, even those who treat terminally ill patients whose diseases cause a great deal of pain. In many cases, when patients are asking to be allowed to die, they are really asking to be relieved of pain and suffering. When pain is brought under control and most pain can be the desire to die often disappears.
Choice in Dying offers annual memberships for $15. Members receive forms for advance directives living wills or durable power of attorney for health care that conform to the laws of their state. In addition, they are provided with updates on any changes in laws or judicial decisions that may affect their situation, as well as discounts on publications and videos.