Every year, Death with Dignity National Center Executive Director Peg Sandeen shares a message commemorating and reflecting on Independence Day in the United States. Here are her thoughts on the meaning of Independence Day in 2020.
Most years, my Independence Day reflection celebrates our country’s stated commitment to freedom and self-determination. It mirrors our own commitment to giving Americans with terminal illness autonomy and control in their final days.
This year, my message is different.
What Does it Mean to Be Free?
In light of everything that has transpired in recent months, I find myself wrestling with several questions. What does it mean to be free in the United States? Have we truly lived up to the promise of liberty and justice for all? And how will we as a nation respond to this moment of reckoning that has forced us to confront our own divisions and inequities?
I believe the greatest human freedom is to live and die according to our own desires and beliefs. Death with Dignity has been working to make this a reality for dying Americans for more than a quarter-century. All of us should be able to define for ourselves what constitutes a good life and a good death—and to have access to medical options that allow us to stay true to those values.
Tragically, we have seen in the past few months how many people have been denied this freedom, whether due to the coronavirus pandemic or systemic racism or police brutality. Statistics on COVID-19 deaths have laid bare how longstanding inequities in access to quality healthcare have left Black and Brown communities more vulnerable to illness and premature death.
Since March, we in the United States have seen freedoms many of us took for granted— the ability to safely travel, gather, celebrate, and mourn with our friends and loved ones—curtailed in the name of safety from a virus that cares not for our way of life. Recent protests against systemic racism have revealed, yet again, that contrary to what many of us learned in school, not everyone is granted the same opportunities at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
A Pivotal Moment
Our nation was forged through conflict and built on the backs of those who were denied the freedom that is central to our nation’s identity. Today, we find ourselves in another moment of upheaval, with another chance to decide what we want our transformed world to become.
Fulfilling a Promise
What does a post-pandemic U.S. look like? Do we try in vain to return to a previous definition of normal life, or do we reimagine a more just and equitable society that fulfills the promises articulated in the Declaration of Independence? How do we ensure all Americans have access to quality end-of-life care and the ability to control their final days?
I don’t have all the answers. But together, perhaps we can begin to envision an America where everyone has the freedom to decide how they live and die.