Married for 59 years and dedicated to civil rights issues even longer, Mary Fran and Peter Libassi of Connecticut are directing their energy and passion to advancing end-of-life choice in the East. They are both longtime supporters of Compassion & Choices, with Mary Fran’s views shaped as a young woman in the conservative South.
“I really can’t remember how it started,” said Mary Fran, “but it was when I was in my early 20s – and I grew up in the South, a really conservative community, Presbyterian church. I have just had this sense for a long, long time that it is really an inalienable right that everybody should have.”
Peter, a retired attorney who held positions in the Johnson and Carter administrations working to advance desegregation, women’s rights and disability rights, and Mary Fran, a former social worker and professor at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, saw the recent campaigns in their area as a great opportunity to get more actively involved. “It was the Massachusetts initiative that came up,” noted Peter. “In Massachusetts we lost, which surprised people in Connecticut. But we made phone calls on behalf of the Massachusetts campaign urging people to support it.”
While Compassion & Choices’ Connecticut team was striving to pack the room for a crucial committee hearing to advance HB 6645, An Act Concerning Compassionate Aid in Dying, Mary Fran and Peter rallied fellow members of their retirement community to pile into a bus headed for the Capitol: “And then we picked up folks from another retirement community nearby,” Peter recalls. “They got on our bus and went down with us. We are finding more support than we knew was there among people in the retirement communities. Let me just add how surprised we were with the number of people here in their 70s, 80s, 90s who couldn’t go down to the legislative hearings but got on the telephone to make phone calls. We were impressed because we thought we were a very small number, three, four or five; and we had 15 to 20 people on the phones!”
“I should also say that living in a retirement community, we are very close to death,” says Mary Fran. “It’s all around us. Because we’ve been here ten years now, many of our friends have died, obviously. So we know about death. It’s just ever-present. We’ve seen people ask, ‘Why is it taking me so long to die? I really don’t want to be like this. I don’t want to live like this.’ I’ve even been present at the death of one of my very close friends, who had gotten medication while in hospice. But the doctor here said it was too much, so her daughter-in-law had to fiercely fight to change doctors so that she would be able to take the medication. It wasn’t just the pain; it was also the panic from having terrible trouble breathing. It was so scary she was constantly crying and crying because she was so afraid. Eventually the daughter-in-law was able to help her die in the nursing home. So we’ve seen those kinds of things happen here, and that has solidified our feelings that this is right. This is very right.”
“The whole challenge with death with dignity now is the opposition really wants to deprive us of a right and a freedom we feel we were born with,” asserts Peter, who was raised Catholic. “They want to prevent me from having the right to do this? If you don’t want to do it, or you don’t want to do it, or you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. That’s your choice. But let me have my choice.”
“This is another fight that has to be won,” he believes. “Mary Fran and I attended the first wedding of a gay couple in Massachusetts. That wasn’t too long ago. How far it has come in a matter of five years? We never had change at that pace. It took us 100 years on race issues. There’s a whole new generation of issues. Just listen; you’ll hear them. You’ll hear the drums calling you to the battle. ”