HARTFORD, Conn. — As the pro-assisted suicide lobby sets its sights on more than a dozen states, an unlikely coalition of socially conservative pro-lifers and liberal activists for the elderly and disabled in Connecticut has shown how to defeat the effort to legalize assisted suicide.For the third consecutive year, a bill that would have made it legal for doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients failed to make it out of a Connecticut legislative committee without a vote. By coordinating effective testimony in public hearings with letter-writing campaigns, press conferences and other awareness-raising efforts, the left-right coalition successfully framed assisted suicide as bad public policy, with dangerous ramifications for the vulnerable in society.
“The more people understand the meaning and the specifics of legislation regarding assisted suicide, the more they dislike it,” said Michael Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference.
Culhane told the Register that defeating the physician-assisted suicide bill, H.B. 7015, was the conference’s top legislative priority in 2015, as it was in the two previous years, when similar legislation was pushed by Compassion & Choices, an organization previously known as the Hemlock Society that is the driving force behind the effort to legalize assisted suicide across the country.
“A great deal of work and coordination went in to the demise of this assisted-suicide legislation,” said Culhane, adding that the Connecticut Catholic Conference helped launch a campaign entitled “Don’t Jump” that featured a website where people could learn about the risks of assisted suicide and the merits of palliative care.
“The website just contained a great deal of information to highlight, to educate and to inform, not only the Catholic population in Connecticut, but also the general population of the state,” Culhane said.
Family Institute of Connecticut
Meanwhile, the Family Institute of Connecticut also marshalled its resources against the assisted suicide bill. The institute hosted the East Coast Conference Against Assisted Suicide last November and helped organize an effective public hearing before the Connecticut Judiciary Committee last month that featured compelling testimony from disability-rights activists and terminally ill people who all urged lawmakers to vote against the legislation.
“We successfully stopped it at the earliest stage. We’ve fought them three years in a row. Contrary to their claims of momentum, Compassion & Choices has been losing ground here,” said Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut.
Wolfgang said the co-chairmen of the Judiciary Committee pulled the bill at the request of the pro-assisted-suicide lobby because, as Compassion & Choices’ state campaign manager admitted in an interview with WNPR, a defeat would have set the assisted suicide cause back several years.
“They’ve really stepped up the pressure for assisted suicide ever since the Brittany Maynard campaign,” said Wolfgang, referring to the 29-year-old California woman with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon last year to take advantage of that state’s assisted-suicide law. Maynard, who took her own life on Nov. 1, 2014, with medication, became an advocate for assisted suicide, and Compassion & Choices has used her story to further its cause.
Failed Assisted Suicide Bills
More than a dozen states, including the District of Columbia, are considering physician-assisted suicide bills this year. Similar legislation has recently been introduced in New York and Delaware. In early April, the California Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-2 to approve an assisted-suicide bill and send it to another committee before it is considered by the full state senate.
With the exceptions of Vermont, Washington and Oregon — the only three states that have enacted statutes providing for assisted suicide — bills to legalize assisted suicide have consistently been defeated in legislatures and referendums. More than 140 similar proposals in 27 states have failed since 1994, according to the Patients Rights Council.
In New Mexico and Montana, the assisted suicide lobby has obtained court decisions allowing for physician-assisted suicide.
Besides Vermont, the assisted suicide lobby has had little success in politically left-of-center New England. In March 2014, the New Hampshire Legislature overwhelmingly rejected an assisted-suicide measure. Massachusetts voters also rejected a November 2012 ballot referendum to legalize assisted suicide.
In Connecticut, the assisted suicide lobby and some media outlets have blamed the Church for defeating assisted suicide, said Wolfgang, who added that Compassion & Choices has tried to frame assisted suicide as another “pro-choice” issue in the culture wars.
“It’s a false narrative on so many levels,” Wolfgang said. “Yes, the Church was involved, but it was not only the Church. This involved people from every walk of life who were united around a common understanding that this would be very bad for a society that should care for the least among us.”
Opposition From People With Disabilities
Stephen Mendelsohn, a leader with Second Thoughts Connecticut, a coalition of people with disabilities opposed to legalizing assisted suicide, also dismissed the assisted suicide lobby’s contention that the opposition to assisted suicide is mainly driven by religious reasons.
“Like it or not, religious and pro-life arguments do not work with socially liberal legislators. We need to make the secular social-justice, civil-rights case against assisted suicide, focusing on issues of elder abuse, misdiagnosis and incorrect prognosis, the deadly mix with medical cost-cutting steering people toward suicide, suicide contagion and disability discrimination in suicide prevention,” Mendelsohn, who is on the autism spectrum, told the Register.
Mendelsohn testified before the Judiciary Committee, as did other individuals with disabilities, including Maggie Karner, a woman diagnosed with glioblastoma, the same form of terminal brain cancer that Maynard had.
Karner, a Bristol, Conn., resident, spoke out against assisted suicide alongside people wearing blue stickers that said, “Got Second Thoughts?” and “Assist Hope, Not Suicide.” They vastly outnumbered the bill’s supporters.
“I think this is an important lesson for California, where we need to get more of our people to the public hearings so that legislators are not awed by Compassion & Choices’ theatrics,” said Mendelsohn, who added, “The secret of coalition building is to have disability voices front and center, while social and religious conservatives rally their base and educate themselves in the disability arguments.”
A common concern raised by opponents of the bill was that the “right to die” would eventually morph into an “obligation to die” for the elderly, sick and disabled who would be seen as a burden to others and society.
“For those of us in the disability community, opposition to assisted suicide is an issue of justice and civil rights,” said Mendelsohn, adding that assisted suicide “enshrines lethal disability discrimination into our law.”
Wolfgang, of the Family Institute of Connecticut, said his organization and disability-rights activists, some of whom differ on social issues, have been meeting regularly in recent years to plot strategies to defeat assisted suicide.
“We did so always from the position of mutual respect and the understanding that we have differences on other issues,” Wolfgang said. “But faced with this emergency situation, the possibility of legal suicide in Connecticut, the most effective way to beat it was to do this together.”
On April 13, the day the Connecticut assisted-suicide measure died in committee, disability-rights activists and staff members from the Family Institute of Connecticut met at the Connecticut State Capitol and played musical instruments. Together, they sang a song entitled, Not Dead Yet.
“The level of harmony, I thought, was really fascinating,” Wolfgang said, “And, hopefully, it’s a way forward on a lot of other issues moving forward.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.