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Making It Legal

By Michelle Holbrook

Fall 2005

Michelle Holbrook
Since the passage of the Oregon law in 1994, and the 1997 Supreme Court invitation to states to consider whether to legalize assisted dying, many states have shown interest in enshrining this basic right in law.

This year is no exception. Compassion & Choices was instrumental in getting assisted-dying bills introduced in California, Hawai'i and Vermont. Yet, introducing a bill or even writing a ballot initiative for choice in dying is nothing new. Each of these states has had similar bills introduced in the past, and the 1990s saw ballot initiatives in California, Maine and Washington.

So what has changed? What's different about this year's attempts?

California is a great case study to show why now is the time for assisted-dying legislation. Early ballot initiatives in California were attempted in 1987 and 1992 -- underfunded and unprepared for the highly virulent and heavily bankrolled right-to-life opposition. A 1999 bill drew more support due to its similarity to the Oregon law, but the campaign fell short on its public education strategy.

Having garnered the missing pieces from these past experiences, we are at last able to put it all together. Compassion & Choices supports the California Compassionate Choices Act, working aggressively to combat the misinformation often conveyed by opponents. The bill's committed sponsors, Assemblymembers Patty Berg and Lloyd Levine held two public informational hearings before even introducing the bill, allowing public commentary and providing a forum for open and accurate debate.

As always, timing can mean everything. The legislative process is often a slow one, particularly with issues that generate as much controversy as assisted dying. After two initiatives and one legislative attempt, assisted dying is beginning to be a familiar concept to Californians. Citizens and legislators have had an opportunity to study and think about the issue. Education about assisted dying has been accomplished by persistence and consistent repetition of the facts.

Repetition and persistence are also paying off in another state that has been hard at work on assisted-dying legislation. Vermont's assisted-dying bill is now in its third year, waiting out the legislative recess for a committee hearing. Vermont advocates have advanced this bill by deliberate patience, allowing the legislature time to conduct studies and analyze its own reports on how well assisted dying works in Oregon.

The climate in Vermont is ripe for a successful bill. Like Oregon, Vermont has a homogeneous voter demographic, a geographically small campaign area and very strong poll numbers in support of the bill -- nearly 80 percent statewide. Best of all, Vermont citizens are known for their fierce independence, and tend to lean sympathetically toward expansion of personal liberties.

In other states, we continue to lay groundwork.

Last year, Arizona passed a law establishing an advance directive registry, something also established in Vermont this year and currently being considered in Pennsylvania. Advance directives, end-of-life planning and pain management are all topics that are worthy of legislation in their own right, and provide fertile ground for further discussion about choice at the end of life.

Unquestionably, the key to choice in dying is gaining legislative momentum. Our tasks now are to keep this issue at the forefront, and to provide appropriate education to lawmakers and constituents. Our legislative and legal efforts are the key to our final goal -- when choice in dying is both enshrined in law and protected by the courts.

Michelle Holbrook is director of legislative affairs at Compassion & Choices.

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