Death + the Law Death Ethics

Day 14: Important Week for Assisted Dying in England and Wales

Religious activists have too much say over our right to die
The question of assisted dying needs to be discussed rationally and not held to ransom by minority zealots
Catherine Bennett, The Observer (July 05, 2014)


Former archbishop lends his support to campaign to legalise right to die
Carey says assisted dying proposal is way of preventing ‘needless suffering’ and helping terminally ill ‘not anti-Christian’
Nicholas Watt, The Guardian (July 12, 2014)


Church of England seeks inquiry over bill to legalise assisted dying
Bishop of Carlisle says church was ‘surprised’ by former archibishop’s support for Falconer Bill
Nicholas Watt and Shane Hickey, The Guardian (July 12, 2014)


Why I’m in favour of assisted dying
I have spent my life working for dignity for the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to dignity for the dying
Desmond Tutu, The Observer (July 13, 2014)


Assisted dying: change the law so that the terminally ill die with dignity
If the assisted dying bill becomes law, it will put an end to prolonged suffering
Observer Editorial, The Observer (July 12, 2014)


Parliament turns back to the question of assisted dying
The House of Lords is to debate Lord Falconer’s bill aimed at clarifying the law on the right to end one’s life
Daniel Boffey, The Observer (July 13, 2014)


Assisted dying has been legal in Oregon since 1997, but it remains surrounded by taboos
One woman described her husband’s death as ‘beautiful’, but many still believe it is morally wrong
Andrew Gumbel, The Observer (July 12, 2014)


Assisted dying bill must not stall in Lords, urges former lord chancellor
Lord Falconer of Thoroton calls on supporters to vote down any attempt to pass wrecking amendment on sensitive issue
Nicholas Watt, The Guardian (July 13, 2014)

This is an important week for Assisted Dying in England and Wales.

A bill brought forward in the House of Lords by Lord Faloner, and modeled on the Death with Dignity Act in Oregon will be debated this coming Friday, July 18, 2014.

The backstory on this proposed law is long and arduous. It’s also something that Death Ref has been closely following since 2009.

You can catch up on those stories with the Assisted Dying and Death with Dignity tags. You can also look through the Death + the Law category

What is most interesting about the upcoming debate is the sudden inclusion of religion into the discussion, and by individuals who support the bill based on religious beliefs. The articles at the top on former Church of England Archbishop Carey and the personal essay by Desmond Tutu threw significant theological weight behind support for the assisted dying bill.

One of the major differences between the US and UK when discussing assisted dying is the role of religion. In the US, I know quite quickly if a person opposes assisted dying for religious reasons. Interestingly enough, a number of libertarian leaning US Conservatives strongly support assisted dying, but it’s the fundamentalist Christian Conservative community that most vocally opposes it.

In the UK, the theological reasons aren’t that obvious even though religious beliefs often inform how a person thinks. The very first op/ed column by Catherine Bennett highlights how some UK Christian groups that oppose assisted dying make a point of setting aside their theological language in the hopes of not alienating non-religious (or Christian) people.

It’s important to know and understand if an individual is opposed to assisted dying for religious reasons so that you can then have a discussion about theology. Otherwise the discussion is about the law, which is a secular, human invention. The statements of support by former Archbishops Carey and Tutu have made that necessary theological conversation possible.

I’m not entirely sure what will happen this week but the Death Reference Desk will follow the events and post updates.

Death + Crime Death + Technology Death + the Law

Day 13: Online Volunteers Who Identify Unidentified Human Remains

Online Supersleuths
There’s an estimated 40,000 unidentified human remains in the United States. When writer Deborah Halber heard this figure, she did some research and discovered a thriving community of internet sleuths who spend hours trying to attach names to these John and Jane Does.
Brooke Gladstone, On the Media (July 12, 2014)

WNYC’s radio programme, On the Media, has been an invaluable resource for the Death Reference Desk these past five years. I never created an ‘On the Media’ tag, but I know that I’ve used its shows a number of times.

This week is a great example of the stories that OTM runs. Brooke Gladstone interviews Deborah Halber about her book Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases and the volunteers who work on unsolved and cold cases involving unidentified human remains.

I have to imagine that some of Death Ref’s regulars, particularly the librarians, might already know about this online crime solving.

Feel free to send the Death Reference Desk examples of cases that were helped and/or solved through online volunteers.

You can listen to the interview here:

Death + Popular Culture Death + the Law

Day 12: Posthumous US Citizenship Granted to Dead People

The Art of Getting American Citizenship After You’re Dead
Only seven people ever have.
Jim Festante, Slate (July 12, 2014)

Chalk this one up to Only in America:

Florida Republicans want to show they’re serious about immigration reform by giving honorary citizenship to a Spanish-speaking patriot … who’s been dead for some 200 years.

I’m not exactly sure how the logic works here but it is interesting to learn that Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, and the Marquis de Lafayette are some of the other dead people awarded posthumous US citizenship.


The whole situation reminded me of a 2009 Death Ref post on posthumous marriages in France.

Roll video.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Day 6: UK Assisted Dying Debates Go On. And On. Again.

Top doctor says people who are dying need equivalent of midwives to help ease, and possibly end suffering and pain
Denis Campbell, The Guardian (July 1, 2014)


My work as a palliative care nurse inspired me to write The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying – I welcome Prof John Ashton’s call for end-of-life midwives
Bronnie Ware, The Guardian (July 3, 2014)


Terry Pratchett, Discworld author, diagnosed in 2007 with Alzheimer’s, has announced that ‘the Embuggerance is finally catching up with me’
Alison Flood, The Guardian (July 2, 2014)

Throughout this past week a series of news articles appeared in The Guardian newspaper about end-of-life decision making and assisted dying in the UK.

One of the very first posts that I ever wrote for the Death Reference Desk was on assisted dying in the UK. Over the past five-years, I’ve written countless variations on that same post. Again and again.

During the coming 31 Days of Death, I’ll spend time focusing on some of the specific reasons for the UK debate.

This week saw the coming together of different but related events. Professor John Ashton, who is president of the Faculty of Public Health in the UK stated that individual’s should be helped to die if and when they’ve decided a terminal condition is no longer worth fighting. This led Bonnie Ware, a Palliative Care Nurse, to say that she agreed and that more people should pay attention to the growing Death Midwife movement.

The entire week was capped off by author Terry Pratchett saying that he couldn’t attend an event in his honour because his Alzheimer’s Disease was finally stopping him. Pratchett personally entered the UK’s assisted dying debate in 2010 when he called for the creation of a tribunal to review a person’s request to end their life.

More on this in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, I recommend checking out The Guardian’s assisted dying page, the Death + The Law page here on the Death Reference Desk, and our Bioethics tag.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Day 3: Necrophilia is a Guaranteed Attention Getter

Why we are so fascinated by people who want to have sex with dead bodies
John Troyer, The Conversation (July 03, 2014)

Three days into the 31 Days of Death and I’m already writing about necrophilia. It was going to happen, this much I knew, but I didn’t think so soon. So it goes.

Necrophilia is one of those topics that always grabs a person’s attention. Most recently, allegations of necrophilia appeared in the UK news and involved the deceased and publicly disgraced Jimmy Savile. An editor at The Conversation, a news and information platform that features articles by academics, asked if I could address why it is people find necrophilia simultaneously fascinating and disgusting.

That article is at the top of the page.

This request wasn’t entirely random. Indeed, I’m asked to discuss necrophilia at least 2-3 times a year and there’s a good reason for the requests. In 2008, I published one of the few peer reviewed academic journal articles on necrophilia and necrophilia laws. That article, Abuse of a Corpse: A Brief History and Re-theorization of Necrophilia Laws in the USA is available on the website.

If Meg, Kim and I have learned anything these past five years it’s that stories about dead bodies and sex, especially dead bodies being used for sex, will always attract attention on the interwebs. And then, if you’re lucky, people will start e-mailing you their tasteful nude photography taken in cemeteries. This really happened. I’m not making it up.

I have a hunch that before these 31 Days of Death are over I will end up discussing necrophilia at least once more. Maybe twice.

You should also check out Carla Valentine’s blog posts on necro topics.

Death + the Law

Collected Posts on the Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps

Westboro Baptist Church Founder Fred Phelps Dies Aged 84
Reverend started Kansas church that gained intense notoriety for its anti-gay protests and pickets at funerals of US soldiers
Jon Swaine, The Guardian (March 20, 2014)

Fred Phelps died earlier today. He led (until recently it seems, but the details are murky) the Westboro Baptist Church. The WBC gained international attention (and condemnation) for its protests at funerals for dead soldiers. It was also known for its ‘God Hates Fags’ signs.

We here at the Death Reference Desk began covering Phelps and the WBC in 2009. You can read all of those posts here.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Bioethicists and Bioethics at the End of Life

A Life-or-Death Situation
by Robin Marantz Henig, New York Times Magazine (July 21, 2013)
As a bioethicist, Peggy Battin fought for the right of people to end their own lives. After her husband’s cycling accident, her field of study turned unbearably personal.


For Bioethicist With Ailing Spouse, End-Of-Life Issues Hit Home
Fresh Air with Terry Gross, National Public Radio (July 25, 2013)
In 2008, a cycling accident left bioethicist Margaret Battin’s husband quadriplegic and dependent on life support technology. The accident forced Battin, a right-to-die advocate, to reflect on the positions she’s taken in the past and decide whether she still believes in them.

Last week, the New York Times and the radio programme Fresh Air with Terry Gross ran really good stories on US Bioethicist Peggy Battin. Both pieces are linked to above, and both are worth reading/listening to.

Peggy Battin has written about and been involved in end-of-life and right to die cases for thirty years. Her writings have always focused on individual autonomy when choosing to die. What makes Battin’s work (which is good) all the more compelling is this–five years ago her husband Brooke had a bicycling accident that resulted in him becoming a quadriplegic. He also relies on life support machinery for assisted breathing and to keep him fed.

Both the Times article and the Fresh Air interview focus on how Battin’s ideas about the right to die have changed since her husband’s accident. She freely discusses her own desire to see her husband continue living, even though he may ultimately decide to finally end his life. And her thinking on all these issues opens up the nuance and complexity of discussing what kind of death and what quality of death, a loved one wants.

I highly recommend both the article and the radio interview.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Melvyn Bragg: I would seek Assisted Death

Lord Bragg: I would seek assisted death rather than suffer Alzheimer’s
By Shiv Malik, The Guardian (May 05, 2013)
Writer and broadcaster reiterates wish to end own life rather than face severe mental degeneration and calls for change in UK law

For those keeping up with the UK’s ongoing Assisted Dying debate, this news item will certainly generate further discussion. Melvyn Bragg is a UK institution and well-respected across the board.

I was particularly struck by the article’s lead:

The veteran 73-year-old arts critic, novelist and broadcaster was deeply affected by watching Alzheimer’s take its toll on his 95-year-old mother for five years until her death last year, and said assisted suicide was an issue for people his age. “It’s happening to my generation – they see what happens when people get close to death, and we’re saying, ‘We don’t want that.'”

Bragg is right about his generation and the end of life control many of them want.

Death Ref hasn’t run a long(ish) update on the UK Assisted Dying debate in a while, so I will start pulling items together.

Until then, keep listening to In our Time with Melvyn Bragg. It’s the best programme on the BBC Radio 4.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

(Repost From 2009) Governor of RI to Gays and Lesbians: You Cannot Claim Your Partner’s Corpse

R.I. governor vetoes ‘domestic partners’ burial bill
Katherine Gregg, The Providence Journal, (November 10, 2009)

This post first ran in November 2009. We’re linking back to it again today in anticipation of this week’s US Supreme Court cases regarding same-sex marriage. Most people do no realize the legal obstacles same-sex partners often face when attempting to claim their partner’s corpse given the lack of either a marriage license or any statutory recognition of the relationship. This 2009 story from Rhode Island demonstrates all the issues. See our section on same-sex partners for more information. Two final notes. Donald Carcieri is no longer Rhode Island’s Governor and in January 2010 the RI Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto.

Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

Choosing Death for Pets. Choosing Death for Humans.

Weighing the End of Life
Louise Aronson, New York Times (February 3, 2013)
How can we measure the quality of life, for our beloved pets or for older, infirm people?

The Old Gray Lady (also known as the New York Times) has been on quite a death-dying-end-of-life-dead body streak of late. In today’s Times, gerontologist Dr. Louise Aronson writes about determining when to put her elderly dog “to sleep” and how that decision-making process gave her pause when thinking about her own human patients.

I am frequently asked about the pet-human relation when it comes to choosing death. So, for example, if a family can choose to humanely end a pet’s life, then why can’t that same family go along with a loved one’s decision to die? The distinction(s) between non-human animals (particularly pets) and human beings are fairly well entrenched in the twenty-first century first world, so I do not see that changing soon.

That said, given the human impulse to make sure that pets do not suffer at the end of life and that a pet’s death is ‘a good death,’ the same philosophical, ethical, moral (dare I say), and practical principles will also be applied to human beings.

The application of these principles and questions will persist. How the law and the modern nation–state decides to view a citizen’s choice to die is a different story altogether.

Death + Biology Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

Radiolab short on Medical Doctors and their End-of-Life Choices

The Bitter End
Radiolab short (January 15, 2013)
We turn to doctors to save our lives — to heal us, repair us, and keep us healthy. But when it comes to the critical question of what to do when death is at hand, there seems to be a gap between what we want doctors to do for us, and what doctors want done for themselves.

This past week, the WNYC’s Radiolab ran a really good short on death, dying, and end-of-life choices. The show, The Bitter End, focused on the fascinating Johns Hopkins Precursors Study which asks Medical Doctors the following:

What are your preferences “…for treatment given a scenario of irreversible brain injury without terminal illness.”

The study has found time and time again that Medical Doctors do not want most (if any) medical treatments that would prolong their lives in this given situation. This finding stands in contrast to members of the general public who generally do want aggressive, life-prolonging treatments. The Radiolab reporters do a good job discussing these medical options with all kinds of people. You should also read the Radiolab blog post, which covers the Precursors Study.

The show flagged up, once again, an issue that the Death Reference Desk has been asking readers since it started: How much and what kind of end-of-life care you want?

This is a question, as most people can see, that only individuals can answer themselves and we here at Death Ref would encourage everyone to have this conversation with their next-of-kin. The Radiolab story captures precisely this kind of conversation between host Jad Abumrad and his Medical Doctor father.

The radio short also mentions, albeit briefly, a form of Do Not Resuscitate tattoo. Regular Death Ref readers will of course remember the recent run of DNR tattoo posts: Do Not Resuscitate this Tattoo or the Person Attached to It and Do Not Resuscitate Tattoos Cannot be Stopped.

Coincidentally, the New York Times ran a blog post today entitled When the Patient Knows Best and it covers many of the points in the Radiolab story.

Many thanks to Radiolab for putting the programme together.

Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

The Right to Die in 2013

A Life Worth Ending
The era of medical miracles has created a new phase of aging, as far from living as it is from dying. A son’s plea to let his mother go.
Michael Wolff, New York Magazine (May 20, 2012)


The Suicide Plan
Frontline, WGBH Boston (November 2012)

If there is anything that the Death Reference Desk can safely predict for 2013, it is this: right to die and assisted dying cases will continue to both happen and capture public attention.

I was catching up on some 2012 reading during the holidays and finally read Michael Wolff’s article in New York Magazine about watching his mother die. It is an exceptionally well written piece and it truly captures the following biomedical paradox: preventing death at every turn often makes living unbearable– for both the individual and next-of-kin.

One of Wolff’s key points is that the current generation of aging adults watching their elderly parents decline will most certainly impact how these same aging adults want to die. He is absolutely correct, and I do not foresee that situation lessening to any degree.

It was after I read Wolff’s article that I finally got a chance to watch the Frontline documentary, The Suicide Plan. I never intended these back-to-back end-of-life activities but they absolutely complemented each other.

The Frontline documentary is worth watching, if for any reason, it is a sign of what is to come regarding individuals who want to end their lives because of terminal illness. Death Ref has covered these kinds of cases before and will continue to do so into the future. The key issue is less about the actual suicide and more about if another person assists in the death. What exactly constitutes “assisting” or “to assist” takes on all kinds of meanings. Frontline examines a number of assisted dying cases in just this way.

Both Wolff’s article and The Suicide Plan share an important argument: forcing terminally ill individuals to live when they want to die, requires both collective, national debates (i.e., as part of health care laws) and individual, personal conversations so that next-of-kin know (and can document) what kind of death a person wants.

Writing about these end-of-life items reminded me of Tony Nicklinson’s right to die case in the UK. Two good articles on Nicklinson here and here.

Death cannot ultimately be stopped. That’s the central dilemma confronted by both Frontline and Wolff (and the modern West writ large). Different kinds of researchers are certainly looking for a method to delay the aging process and dying by extension but those medical innovations (if actually desirable) are longer term possibilities.

Until that future arrives, many people will continue to choose death.

Watch The Suicide Plan on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.