This week at Compassion & Choices we launch a campaign to educate and empower individuals throughout America who want a peaceful death. We offer people legal options for peace and comfort at the end of life, whether or not they live in a state where aid in dying (ingestion of prescribed life-ending medication) is openly available. Often people outside Oregon, Washington and Montana feel doomed to unbearable suffering, risky self-help or violent means – often a gun – if medical interventions fail them. Peaceful options exist, and Compassion & Choices can help make them accessible and safe.

One method of peaceful dying is universally available, legal, safe, painless and suitable for a gentle parting in one’s own home with loved ones present. This is the purposeful refusal of food and fluids, in medical jargon known as voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED).

VSED made its formal debut in medical literature in 1994 when Dr. David Eddy published his mother’s story in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Mrs. Eddy was 85 years old and suffered a multitude of bodily dysfunctions and deterioration. As her physical health rapidly declined, her life grew more limited and difficult by the day. She asked for her son’s help achieving a peaceful death, and his research led him to suggest VSED. The process went so smoothly, she became something of an evangelist. “Write about this, David,” she implored. “I’d like this to be my gift.”

Young people are often astounded to hear a sane person would refuse food and water. And of course, a healthy and vigorous person wouldn’t. But for those enduring a slow, agonized dying process or losing mental and physical function – as my own mother described, “by inches” – dying can seem the “least worst” outcome. And some would prefer peaceful, painless dying to further deterioration, a medical calamity imposing unbearable suffering, or the prison of an intensive care unit.

VSED features these benefits:

  • It requires no special laws or regulations. VSED is legal– for patients and their caregivers–today, in every state.
  • It requires determination and resolve, so no one can claim a person choosing VSED is acting impulsively or under coercion.
  • It is broadly available. Even those who do not meet the strict six-month terminal prognosis required under Washington and Oregon’s Death with Dignity laws can legally stop eating and drinking.
  • Death approaches slowly, typically within one to three weeks, so loved ones have time to gather, celebrate the life and love of the person preparing to leave them, and grieve together.
  • People with religious objections to aid in dying often accept a loved one‘s VSED choice and feel no moral condemnation.

People are often surprised to hear that twice as many patients in Oregon hospice choose VSED over self-administration of life-ending medication, although the state’s Death with Dignity law has been in use almost 14 years. Some of the attributes above may account for this phenomenon. Compassion & Choices has counseled people through VSED who did not qualify for aid in dying, and at least one client chose VSED over aid in dying to accommodate her religiously conservative daughter.

VSED doesn’t always go smoothly, and we recommend careful planning. Before beginning the program, a person should:

  • Carefully consider palliative options and other ways to make life more comfortable and enjoyable. Consider VSED only after all other options are exhausted.
  • Call Compassion & Choices End-of-Life Consultation Service for detailed information, consultation and emotional support throughout the process.
  • Visit a mental-health professional to check for treatable depression and follow any recommended treatment plan. If depression is not a factor, a clean bill of mental health will reassure medical professionals and family. This step can prevent an uneducated or unsympathetic doctor from labeling an individual “suicidal” and ordering a psychiatric lock-up.
  • Bring loved ones in on the decision. When they offer their support, approach doctors and other healthcare professionals together.
  • Arrange for the best hospice or palliative services available. The most common difficulty is dry mouth, and this responds to treatment.

Even the best-laid plans can go awry. Co-chairing this campaign is Neil Rudolph, whose parents, Armond and Dorothy, stopped eating and drinking together and died peacefully early this year. Officials at The Village at Alameda assisted-living facility, where Armond and Dorothy made their home, learned of their plans and erected obstacles. When the couple demonstrated they were rational and overcame those obstacles, the facility served them a 24-hour eviction notice.

We are appalled that an assisted-living facility could kick a couple out of their home for simply planning to die there. So we drafted a sample contract rider to use with a lease contract if prospective residents want to safeguard their right to live in their new home through the time of their death.

Finally, Compassion & Choices is so dedicated to making VSED available to anyone making a rational, thoughtful and well-considered decision that we commit to the following:

  • We will will offer advocacy and legal assistance to help any individual encountering obstacles in their rational, well-considered plan to stop eating and drinking to achieve a peaceful death.
  • We will defend any healthcare provider facing sanction due to their medical and palliative support for a patient making a rational, well-considered decision to stop eating and drinking to achieve a peaceful death.
  • We will provide these advocacy and legal services without charge as part of our mission to improve care and expand options at the end of life.

In honor of Mrs. Eddy, Dorothy and Armond Rudolph, and all the people of courage and resolve who pioneered VSED, we dedicate ourselves to making this option generally known and universally available, and thus preventing unnecessary and unwanted suffering.