Aid-In-Dying Law Supporters Refuse To Give Up

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When an emergency medical team resuscitated Joseph Yourshaw in February 2013, the first thing he said was “Don’t let them hurt Barbara.”

logo_ColumnHis daughter Barbara Mancini, an emergency room nurse, had earlier that dayhanded morphine to her terminally ill, 93-year old father when he’d requested it. A hospice nurse stopped by the house soon after the dose and immediately – against Yourshaw’s wishes – dialed 911. Yourshaw went to the emergency room. Mancini was brought to the police station.

Aiding someone to end his or her own life was and is illegal in Pennsylvania, as it is in Connecticut. Simply by handing her father his prescribed morphine, Mancini faced 10 years in prison.

Yourshaw died four days later, and – inexplicably – his death was ruled a homicide. So in addition to mourning her father, Mancini started a painful pass through the judicial system until the one-year anniversary of her father’s death, when a judge wisely dismissed the charges, citing a “lack of competent evidence.”

Last month, on the heels of the death of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year old woman with brain cancer who chose to end her life, a HealthDay/Harris Poll said 74 percent of Americans believe that terminally ill patients who are in pain should have the right to end their own lives. Just 14 percent were opposed. Yet the discussion of a rational approach to such end-of-life decisions never seems to get off the ground in Connecticut.

Proponents of last year’s death-with-dignity bill, which died in committee, say the Catholic Church holds far too much sway in this conversation. In fact, a Vatican official condemned Maynard’s choice of death an “absurdity.” And there’s no shortage of anti-death-with-dignity literature on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The American Medical Association, another powerful lobby, calls “physician-assisted suicide” “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.”

Aid-in dying display at legislative office building in 2014.

Aid-in dying display at legislative office building in 2014.

But that won’t stop proponents from trying again this legislative session, which starts Wednesday.

“This has entered the national conversation – not death and dying but rather respect for choices. Who am I to begin to question those choices?” said Tim Appleton, Connecticut campaign manager for the national advocacy group Compassion & Choices.

During the last state legislative session, Compassion & Choices hung 30 large portraits of aid-in-dying supporters in the Legislative Office Building’s concourse. The portraits were to be displayed – as are other signs and posters that push other legislative agendas – for two weeks. But at the request of House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, R-Norwalk, the portraits were removed after just a week because, the representative said, the posters were “a paid ad on state property.” Cafero opposes aid-in-dying legislation. Other states where similar bills didn’t pass include Hawaii, Kansas and Massachusetts, among others.

Opponents generally fall into one religious camp or another. Some opponents worry that allowing terminally ill people to end their lives would open the door to potential foul play. But Oregon has had similar legislation in place for 18 years, and there’s been no such challenge. In 2013, 71 terminally ill people chose to end their own lives in Oregon, according to the annual report produced by the state’s Department of Human Services.

Passing a death-with-dignity law is especially pertinent in Connecticut, which is aging rapidly. According to the state’s Commission on Aging, by 2030 Connecticut’s over-65 population could grow by 64 percent. They’re calling this a “silver tsunami.”

By the end of Mancini’s legal ordeal, her bills were more than $100,000, and she was unable to work. And for what? Her father had a living will and a do-not-resuscitate order, and his daughter had power of attorney. In great pain the last few weeks of his life, he’d explicitly said and written that he did not want to extend his life with medical intervention.

Mancini was in Connecticut recently lobbying for a death-with-dignity law.

“Unless people who support death with dignity let their legislators know, the vocal minority will continue to defeat these bills,” she said. “It really, really matters that people take the time to contact their elected officials. If people don’t pressure the lawmakers, it’s easy to see why they won’t vote to pass death with dignity. It appears that the electorate doesn’t care that much about it, no matter what the polling says.”

As for local efforts to pass a law, “we are going to keep doing what we have been doing all along,” Appleton said. “The more we keep educating the public, educating the legislators, the more support we get.”