American democracy is based on the idea that the voices of the people matter. As legislators struggle with difficult issues, trying to balance the needs of conflicting constituencies and solve complicated problems, they need to hear the perspectives of the people most directly affected.
This is why they listen to hour after hour of in-person testimony. Written testimony has its place. Studies and charts provide important information; but being in the presence of the people, hearing their passion, and sometimes seeing their tears brings us together as human beings and makes it possible for legislators to make the best decisions.
During this time, when the State Capitol complex is closed and legislators are voting by telephone, some people are proposing that critical issues be brought to a vote without a public hearing. “Sen. Will Haskell: State must approve aid-in-dying bill” (March 12, 2020, CT Post) is astonishing in its premise that the debate over doctor-assisted suicide has been resolved.
Now, especially, we need and expect our legislators to give all of their attention to the current crisis. Flexing the rules may be necessary when it comes to decisions directly related to the coronavirus situation: the continued running of the government, economics, food, unemployment, and healthcare.
According to Sen. Haskell, legalizing doctor-assisted suicide is so critical that it must be pushed through immediately. The same bill has already died in committee five times, which makes it clear that the legislators and their constituents continue to grapple with the concept. Trying to preempt opposition under the guise of social distance can only be described as opportunistic.
Healthcare rationing is in the news now because of COVID-19, but how many legislators realize that it is not unusual for hospital ethics boards to deny treatment to people simply because they are disabled? Based on the bias that we would be better off dead than alive, treating us is deemed “futile.” This is one of many reasons the disability community has typically opposed doctor-assisted suicide.
The push for assisted suicide is not about pain; it is about fear of disability. Oregon’s own data consistently shows that less than one-third of people seeking to use the state’s Death with Dignity Act are driven by pain or even fear of pain. The overwhelming majority cite as their reasons being less able to engage in activities that made life enjoyable (90.4%), loss of autonomy (86.7%), and loss of dignity (72.3%). That is where we need to place our attention and our healing efforts.
Proponents of assisted suicide claim that dying people do not have enough choices over their treatment. They fail to note that Connecticut has a robust and growing program that puts people with end-stage conditions in charge of their own destiny. Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (MOLST) ensures that people do not receive unwanted treatment, and that they have access to comfort measures only if that is what they choose.
These and other points cannot be described adequately on paper. Voices on both sides of this issue need to be heard, but they need to be heard in person. Not everyone (disabled or not) is a good writer, but that should not preclude them from having their say. Even for those who are good writers, it is not the same as looking into the eyes of legislators and having them look at us.
In-person testimony has always been an essential part of governmental decision-making. Whether the issue is assisted suicide or any other controversial measure, this is not the time to pass secret laws or to start tinkering with our legislative system.
Cathy Ludlum of Manchester is a leader of Second Thoughts Connecticut, a grassroots group of disability rights advocates opposed to the legalization of physician-assisted suicide.