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Different States, Different Strategies for Authorizing Aid in Dying as a Compassionate Option

From Maryland to New Mexico, Compassion & Choices staff and volunteers are gearing up for new legislative sessions, many of which begin in January.

Compassion & Choices’ (C&C’s) political and policy experts travel the country, visiting with lawmakers in any state who want to advance aid-in-dying legislation, and providing technical assistance and activating C&C supporters in the area. We are anticipating bills to be considered in twenty states during the upcoming legislative session. Here is a sampling.

A top priority remains New York state, where C&C is working closely with top-notch legislative sponsors to pass the New York End of Life Options Act. The C&C NY team has been building relationships with key organizations whose support we need (nurses, groups, senior groups, etc.), but they know many legislators won’t support this bill without pressure from their constituents. A big part of any C&C campaign, then, is mobilizing citizens who want access to medical aid in dying as an end-of-life option, and the campaign in New York is doing a lot of that lately. In August, C&C staff and volunteers hosted a table during each of the eleven days of the New York State Fair in Syracuse. About one million New Yorkers from all over the state come to the fair every year, so it offered an amazing opportunity to recruit supporters for grassroots work and to share information with people who aren’t sure about medical aid in dying. Six thousand new people signed up to help with efforts, and 4,200 sent postcards to their elected representatives asking them to vote “yes” on medical aid in dying in the Legislature.

After the fair, C&C NY launched its Ask-the-Candidate campaign. Like similar campaigns in Connecticut and other states, it helps the New York team gather intelligence about legislators’ positions on aid in dying. Equally important, it lets incumbents and candidates alike know that their constituents care about this issue. It works like this: When candidates come knocking on doors in Binghamton, Bay Head or Brooklyn seeking votes, voters ask them where they stand on aid in dying and offer them more information. The voters also report back to C&C campaign staff, who can plan appropriate follow-up. It might be easy to feel discouraged about the political process, and it seems like our national politics get a little uglier every year. But ordinary people can make a difference, especially at local levels, by speaking out loudly, consistently and in numbers great enough to drown out the money of organized opposition. C&C’s campaigns empower Americans who want more end-of-life autonomy to get their voices heard and spur their elected representatives to action.

Next door to New York is Massachusetts, where end-of-life choice supporters are using an additional strategy to be sure state legislators hear them. C&C’s Massachusetts campaign has been organizing in towns and cities to get local legislative bodies to pass resolutions supporting medical aid in dying. City councilmembers are responsive to their constituents, so if a council passes a resolution, it signals strong support in that community. For example, following a targeted campaign by two C&C supporters there, the Cambridge City Council at a September 12 hearing voted unanimously (9-0) to endorse medical aid in dying and call upon the state Legislature to pass a law authorizing it. Other cities will be targeted after the November election to make sure state legislators who represent those areas know where their constituents stand.

Speaking of local councils, Washington, D.C.’s, elected representatives sit on a body called the Council of the District of Columbia. Half state legislature, half city council, it is where most laws governing the District are made. (Living in a Federal district rather than a state, D.C.’s citizens not only lack representation in Congress, but Congress can override their laws.) Nonetheless, there is momentum behind the D.C. Death with Dignity Act. The bill was approved by the Health and Human Services Committee in October and the full Council will hold its first vote on it in November.

In New Mexico, a state Supreme Court ruling in June of 2016 permanently overturned a district court decision in a case C&C brought that had authorized medical aid in dying in the state’s most populous county from January 2014 to August 2015. The Supreme Court ruling, which upheld an appellate court decision, however, made it clear that this is a matter that the state Legislature can and should take up — and soon. C&C is currently working up plans to make sure lawmakers in Sante Fe pass legislation authorizing aid in dying as an end-of-life option for terminally ill New Mexicans.

Some states are amenable to legal strategies, others to local or legislative strategies. But in 26 states and the District of Columbia, taking an issue directly to the voters in a ballot initiative is also an option, and that is exactly what’s happening in Colorado.

After the Colorado Legislature failed to pass a bill for a second time, Colorado proponents Julie Selsberg and Jaren Ducker filed an initiative to authorize medical aid in dying for terminally ill Coloradans.

Julie Selsberg, the lead petitioner on this measure, was motivated to file the petition to carry on her father’s wishes. In 2014 her father, Charles, penned an open letter to lawmakers while he was dying from ALS, asking them to pass an aid-in dying law and spare other Coloradans the suffering he was enduring. His letter, published in the Denver Post shortly after he died, inspired lawmakers to introduce a bill. But despite two-to-one public support for the legislation, its sponsors came up short on votes two years in a row. Julie, who helped her father write the letter, shared his view and was determined to see his wish realized.

Earlier this year, Compassion & Choices and the Compassion & Choices Action Network encouraged a separate campaign organization, Yes on Colorado End-of-Life Options, to promote The Colorado End-of-Life Options Act. Volunteers with the campaign fanned out across the state to collect signatures — at farmers markets, outside libraries and on street corners — from other Coloradans who want to see medical aid in dying on the ballot. In August, Yes on Colorado End-of-Life Options submitted 156,000 signatures to the secretary of state, more than enough to officially qualify. On November 8, Coloradans will see The Colorado End-of-Life Options Act on their ballots. If 50 percent “plus one” vote yes (as they did in Oregon in 1994 and Washington in 2008) Colorado will become the sixth state where aid in dying is authorized.

If Colorado passes this initiative, it would be an enormous boost for the entire movement. A September poll from Colorado Mesa University showed that 70 percent of Colorado voters support the aid-in-dying initiative — and that it’s the most popular measure on the ballot this year. While we are cautiously optimistic, we cannot take this initiative for granted. Our opponents are up on the air using scare tactics to raise fear and doubt among Colorado voters. Hopefully, by the time this magazine reaches mailboxes, Colorado will have become the sixth state to authorize medical aid in dying!