Public support grows for right-to-die

Sixty-nine percent of Americans support some form of right-to-die legislation. Photo courtesy of Justin McCarthy/Gallup

On Sept. 1, Bisbee became the first city in the state to back a resolution supporting the right to die.

Right to die is a discussion that needs to be started in Arizona,” said Councilwoman Joan Hansen.

The move was in response to other states such as Oregon, California, and Vermont, all of which legalized right-to-die legislation. Bisbee joined a growing nationwide movement to let people die with dignity.

Bisbee has always existed as a city that is counter to the mainstream culture of Arizona. It was the first city in the state to support same sex marriage despite the fact that many citizens and state politicians did not support it.

Bisbee’s resolution to support right to die is another landmark first for the city, but is Bisbee’s support just another protest for a city that does not hold the same opinion of the state? Or is right to die a legitimate movement that has the backing of the majority of Arizonians?

The Start of something in Bisbee

Bisbee native Sharon Rock heard stories of terminally ill people killing themselves in horrible ways.

“I have seen and heard of so many people ending their lives in very violent ways with family members. Shooting themselves in the head in bed,” Rock said. “They left their family with horrible last memories, when it could have been a reverent and peaceful time.”

The idea of people slowly and painfully dying from an incurable disease caused Rock to make a phone call to Compassion And Choices, a nationwide non-profit seeking to legalize the right to die nationwide.

“I became very passionate about the issue of right to die so I called Compassion and Choices and they were having a conference in Arizona and I asked if I could come,” Rock said.

The meeting with the right-to-die non-profit mobilized Rock and her supporters to contact the Bisbee City Council to put a resolution on the table.

Councilwoman Hansen loved the idea.

“I just felt this was a conversation that needed to be had,” Hansen said. “People should be allowed to die on their own terms.”

The resolution passed 4-3, marking the first time right to die was openly supported by a local government in Arizona.

Rock said the resolution does not change the legality of right to die in the state and the city is only looking to start a conversation and will allow the bigger cities to take a more hands-on approach.

“We really wanted to get people talking about death with dignity,” Rock said.

Does Arizona and the Nation Support Right to Die?

Bisbee may support the legalization of right to die, but does the state and nation share the same sentiment?

According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, 69 percent of Americans support some form of right to die. In fact the majority Americans have not had a negative view on the subject since 1973.

Pollster Earl de Berge of the Behavior Research Center conducted a survey this year of 700 head of household in Arizona.

Fifty-three percent of people statewide support a proposal allowing a patient to take life-ending medication as long as two doctors certify the person is terminally ill and mentally competent.

Support for right to die was strongest amongst people 55 and older, who supported the proposal by 63 percent.

Democrats supported the proposal by 73 percent and Republicans disagreed by a slim margin of 45 percent.

“The fact of the matter is poll after poll in Arizona, about 70 percent of people are in favor of aid in dying,” Rock said. “We are just waiting on our legislators to catch up to the people, but the opposition is so loud.”

Opponents of right to die are not in the majority, but still make up a large part of the population.

Vicki Belon, head of the Phoenix Bureau of Compassion and Choices, said the best way to change minds is outreach.

“I think all we can do is educate people on terms and tell them what this really is,” Belon said. “I think the general and the religious community must understand that this is not suicide, this person is already dying. This is just another option that a patient can choose with their physician.”

Belon said that right to die is an option that gives them a chance to end their life in a more humane way.

Right to die receives strong support with the public, but there is not a strong gauge on state support from the medical community.

Jay Conyers, executive director of the Maricopa County Medical Center, conducted a survey

with a small sample size of 117 physicians. The survey asked if Arizona should pass the same right to die law as California. Seventy percent of doctors contacted said yes.

Belon said the only way right-to-die laws can be passed in state legislatures is with the support of the medical community.

“The Arizona Medical Association has not endorsed our cause,” Belon said. “It is in our best interest that we get a neutral or favorable response from the medical community. Then we can say to our lawmakers, the people want this and doctors want this. Aid and dying is the will of the people.”

Support from Tucson?

Sanda Schuldmann, 68, feels like a young woman, but a stroke six years ago has her thinking more about death. The Romanian-born activist thinks right to die is an issue of freedom for the people of Tucson.

“Growing up in a communist country, freedom is important to me,” Schuldmann said. “I admire the courage it takes to exit earth on your own terms.”

Rock, Belon, and Schuldmann all work together each searching for new support in their cities.

“We all have the same goal. We want to change legislation in this state,” Schuldmann said.

Schuldmann’s work in Tucson has not gone unnoticed.

On Tuesday the Mayor and Council of Tucson will vote for a resolution that will urge state legislators to enact a right-to-die bill.

Councilman Steve Kozachik supports Schuldmann’s proposal, but wants the public to temper expectations.

“I want it clear that we do not have the power to compel the state or county to change the law,” Kozachik said. “The best we can do is be advocates.”

If the resolution passes, then Tucson will be the largest city in Arizona to support legalization of death with dignity.

Max Lancaster is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at

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