Dying Oregon woman's campaign for 'Death With Dignity' laws stoking Conn. movement

Oct 29, 2014

A bill to allow mentally competent, terminally ill Connecticut residents to take their own life hasn't seen a lot of momentum in Hartford. But supporters say an online video of an Oregon woman who is scheduled to die this weekend is helping to draw attention to their cause. 

This undated photo provided by the Maynard family shows Brittany Maynard. The terminally ill California woman moved to Portland, Ore., to take advantage of Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, which was established in the 1990s. Maynard wants to pass a similar law in California and has turned to advocacy in her final days.
Credit AP Photo/Maynard Family

There is soft piano music, then Brittany Maynard speaks. 

"So after getting married is when I first started experiencing the headaches, and they were quite severe," she says. "I didn't understand them because I never had anything like them before."

Maynard, 29, appears in a video as part of a national campaign to advocate for aid in dying laws. In the clip, one sees a vibrant, active woman who is dying of brain cancer. She tells viewers she first got her diagnosis on Jan. 1, 2014, after she returned from her honeymoon.

"I was told I have stage 2 Astrocytoma and I have three, maybe five years to live. I have to tell you when you're 29 years old, being told you have that kind of timeline still feels like you're going to die tomorrow," she says.

Maynard's tumor got progressively worse. The doctors shortened her life expectancy to just six months. She knew she might be in extreme pain in those last days. Seizures and paralysis were likely. So, she and her husband, Dan Diaz, took a drastic step. They moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of that state's Death With Dignity Act. On Nov. 1, 2014, Maynard tentatively plans to die. 

For the past 17 years, the law has allowed terminally-ill residents to voluntarily take their own lives by lethal prescription. Patients must make several requests, observe a waiting period and be approved by two separate doctors. Only four other states currently have similar laws. 

Tim Appleton is the Connecticut coordinator for a national campaign called Compassion and Choices. It's goal is to get more states to pass what he calls 'aid in dying' laws.  

"Every year we're in this fight, we become stronger," He said recently inside the state Capitol building.

Appleton said interest in the state has exploded over the past two years the campaign has been active in the state. He said there's now 7,000 people on their mailing list - a ten-fold increase. 

"Our momentum builds. We have supporters in every single House district in the state and in every single Senate district in the state." 

That's important because only the state Legislature can change laws. Unlike other states, it's not possible to enact laws by voter referendum in Connecticut. The courts have also stayed away. But the bill hasn't gone anywhere in the last two years in Hartford, despite being introduced consecutively. Appleton said Brittany Maynard's story may change that.

"It's not about death and dying. It's about choice and respect. People who are terminally ill and mentally competent that want that choice, want that choice to be respected. And that's where the power of Brittany Maynard's video exists. And you cannot watch that and not be moved by her story," he said. 

The video has gotten more than 8.5 million views. In March, a Quinnipiac poll showed residents in Connecticut favored an aid in dying law nearly 2 to 1. 

Cathy Ludlum, 52, from her home in Manchester, Conn. She is part of a group called Second Thoughts Connecticut, which opposes what it calls 'assisted suicide.'
Credit Kaomi Goetz

But there are opponents. Cathy Ludlum of Manchester, Conn. is an advocate for people with disabilities. She is active with a group called Second Thoughts Connecticut. They oppose what they call 'assisted suicide.'

"Second Thoughts Connecticut got its name because many people are initially supportive of the idea. But more they get to know about the deeper implications of implementing something like this, support drops," she said earlier this month from her home. 

Ludlum has a genetic disease called spinal muscular atrophy. She has had it all her life. It's a debilitating disease that has paralyzed most of her muscles. A cup attached to her wheelchair catches saliva from her mouth because she can no longer swallow. Her life isn't easy but she said she would never voluntarily end it.

"I have had people wiping my butt, helping me shower, helping me eat, all my life," she said. "And we [Second Thoughts Connecticut] are here to say that life is challenging sometimes but it's worth it. And death is not the answer for this," Ludlum, 52, said. 

Ludlum is afraid that legalizing death would adversely affect the disability community. She said it might encourage healthcare providers and insurers to shift policies that favor death because of cost. Ludlum said that could open the door to discrimination. And she said there is already choices available to the terminally ill: palliative care and hospice options and the ability to reject treatment. And she said she is concerned about what happens after a voluntary lethal pill is prescribed. 

"There is no [state] oversight," she said. "So how can anyone claim there has been no problem [in Oregon]. There has been no record of problems." 

But Compassion and Choices counter that is true of any prescription. The state of Oregon said it considers the statute a 'permissive' one; that state responsibility stops at the prescription. As of Jan. 22, 2014, nearly 1,200 Oregon residents had gotten a prescription for the lethal pill. Only 752 people died by taking it. Most of the patients were 65 years or older, under hospice care and had cancer. 

And while no reports of abuse are known, Oregon statute does not require it to follow-up as to the circumstances of those deaths. After a death certificate is recorded, the state does send a questionnaire to the physician who prescribed the pill. However, not every form finds its way back to the state. Oregon Public Health officials said Tuesday they're missing seven surveys since the law took effect in the 1990s. One explanation could be if a patient switches doctors, the state has no way of making contact with the new physician if they aren't notified before the death. 

On a recent brisk fall Sunday at the Lyme Town Hall in Lyme, Connecticut, several dozen people turned up to hear more about the issue. The event was sponsored by Compassion and Choices.

Mary Bradley of Hamden, Connecticut said she supports a bill being introduced in the upcoming Legislative session. 

"I don't want to suffer a long sickness. And I don't want to have to go through all the money, it's ridiculous. If I have a stroke  and can't move, I'm out of there. I want to have the opportunity [to choose]. I fought the battle for birth control, abortion and now I'm fighting for this, 'Death with Dignity.'" 

To that end, Bradley has been calling her state lawmakers. She has been encouraging her friends to do the same. Opponents like Cathy Ludlum say they'll be ready to testify, if necessary, again.