Will Connecticut Legislature Avoid Aid-in-Dying Bill Another Year?

January 31, 2016; Hartford Courant

Nonprofit advocates are almost never happy with the odd and relatively unpredictable pacing of legislative change, although they grudgingly accept its inevitability. It feels great when you reach that watershed moment where bills move (after which, of course, you face the uphill battle of implementation) but the years- and sometimes decades-long campaigns to get laws changed can be grueling.

NPQ has been following many of the nonprofit-led campaigns across the country to pass death with dignity legislation, including California’s effort last year. National nonprofit Compassion & Choices (C&C) has made some strides in the movement by pressuring state legislatures to pass aid-in-dying bills that would allow terminally ill patients to request the assistance of physicians in ending their lives. While C&C’s national campaign has resulted in significant activity in twenty-seven states and D.C., Connecticut’s campaign has been stalled in the General Assembly for three years despite heavy lobbying. According to the Hartford Courant, 2016 is unlikely to be the year legislators finally address the aid-in-dying bill.

Over the past two years, C&C has organized patients and families to offer heart-wrenching testimonials to the Connecticut state legislature, asking them to pass a bill to allow mentally competent, terminally ill adults to seek physician help in ending their lives. This year portends to follow previous years’ delays. Anne Singer, spokesperson for C&C in Washington said, “We don’t expect to see a bill this year.” That’s because the 2016 legislative session, which begins on February 3rd, is only three months long and is reserved for budgetary matters. Politicians in this election year are unlikely to want to grapple with this controversial issue.

Not only are activists in Connecticut up against a political tide opposing assisted suicide legislation, but they face an equally formidable nonprofit coalition on the other side, which includes the Catholic Church, disability rights activists, and the Connecticut State Medical Society. As the Family Institute of Connecticut, a nonprofit social welfare organization against assisted suicide, stated on its blog:

The Connecticut electorate knows they would be better served by expanded access to early palliative and hospice care, increased funding for home health care workers and mandatory training for pain management techniques for medical students. These would be ways to help hundreds and thousands of residents in ways that laws permitting assisted suicide cannot.

However, opposition and delay have not stopped the organization from building support. Singer said, “We are continuing with all the public outreach we have been doing, building up the grassroots…so that when a bill is next introduced, we are ready to roll.” She goes on to say, “We’re busier than ever internally, but it just may not look like it out there.”

In 2013, Vermont became the first state to pass a death-with-dignity law through the legislative process. The C&C Vermont team continues working with Patient Choices Vermont, C&C’s physician allies, and nurse leaders to expand implementation. C&C Vermont helped successfully defend access to death with dignity under Act 39 during the 2015 legislative session against efforts to repeal the law. However, efforts to enact such a law in New Jersey fell short late last month. To date, California, Washington, Oregon, and Vermont currently have right-to-die legislation in place.

At the center of this frustration over delays are the various patients in Connecticut who are unable to address their pain and suffering. Last April, after yet another failed attempt to pass legislation, Tim Appleton, C&C’s Connecticut campaign director, said, “Each year that lawmakers fail to act prolongs the suffering for thousands of terminally ill Connecticut residents and the people who love them.”

Last year, referring to the Connecticut General Assembly’s dragging of its collective feet, the state’s paper of record, the Courant, editorialized, “Letting substantive bills die on the committee floor without a vote happens far too often in the General Assembly. It’s a cowardly way to do the public’s business.” Now, in 2016, it seems as though Connecticut will see another year go by without any movement, and that will be longer than some sick people will live.—G. Meredith Betz