General Election Reflections
By Barak Wolff and Jill VonOsten, NM EOLO Coalition Steering Committee
It’s finally over…and we now know who our New Mexico Representatives and Senators will be. Election night the results came in slowly, but by very early Wednesday morning, all precincts had reported in and only one race (HD 53, Doña Ana and Otero Co.) was close enough for a mandatory recount…the rest were decided. This was a year in which every legislative seat was up for consideration. As anticipated, some sitting legislators decided to retire and a number of incumbents, including several very senior leaders in the Senate, were defeated in their primary elections, as we reported in our June Update.
Overall, incumbents did pretty well with only 12 new members in the House of Representatives (out of 70 positions for 17% turnover) and 11 new members in the Senate (out of 42 positions for 26% turnover). The diversity of the legislature was enhanced in this election. For the first time ever, women will be in the majority in the House with 37 representatives. The Senate added 5 new women, lost one, for a new total of 12. Harold Pope Jr. will be New Mexico’s first African American Senator. And finally, there will now be a LBGTQ bicameral caucus (meaning legislators in both chambers) with six openly gay members.
Implications for the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act (EWEOLO Act)
The path for our bill includes being formally introduced into legislation, reviewed by standing committees in both houses, debated on both the House and Senate floors, and if passed by a majority, it then must be signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a supporter of medical aid in dying. Ultimately every legislator will have an opportunity to vote on the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act.
So, what do we know about these 112 recently elected legislators? Our informal assessment is based on the voting records of those incumbents who considered similar bills in 2017 and 2019, on the results of our “Ask the Candidate” outreach efforts that started in January 2020, and on their responses to the Albuquerque Journals’ May 2020 survey of the Primary Election candidates. It appears that in the House, we will be in a similar position as we were in 2019, with enough positive votes to possibly get a narrow majority in favor of the EWEOLO Act. In the Senate, where we lost by a vote of 22-20 in 2017, it looks like we will now be in a stronger position to get a majority vote for medical aid in dying.
So, the prospects are encouraging, but it will require enormous grassroots support, excellent testimony by patients, family members, health care providers, partner organizations, and strong ongoing advocacy to each and every legislator who is not clearly opposed to our bill. In addition to our informal vote count, our cause is buoyed by national trends with several additional states passing or improving medical aid in dying laws in recent years so that now 22% of the U.S. population has access. In addition, there have been more positive human-interest stories and videos about compassionate end-of-life celebrations reducing fear and suffering at the end, and continued evidence that medical aid in dying is both safe and effective.
So How Can you Help?
Right now, we encourage everyone to send an email or letter to their newly elected legislators congratulating them on their win, thanking them for their willingness to serve, mentioning your personal support for the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act to authorize medical aid in dying in NM, and requesting their support for the bill as well. You can also offer to provide them additional information about medical aid in dying or have an expert be in touch with them, etc.
It’s good to send this kind of congratulatory note whether or not you voted for them and even if they may not support our bill. If you need assistance with this kind of letter or need your legislator’s email or physical address, check out this helpful resource or be in touch with us through: firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll follow up with you in a matter of days.
We’ll continue to keep you informed through these monthly updates as to the status of the upcoming session and how you can help the cause.
Bill Johnson Makes Impassioned Plea to Pass End-of-Life Options Act
Compassion & Choices recently released a new video featuring the late Bill Johnson, CEO of University Hospital for many years and Secretary of the New Mexico Human Services Department. The video commemorates the first anniversary of Bill’s painful death to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and demonstrates his support for and the need for medical aid in dying. To view video, click here.
The video was released on October 29, what would have also been Bill’s 85th birthday and a few months before legislators in New Mexico will once again consider the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act. The bill would allow mentally capable, terminally ill adults with six months or less to live the option to request a prescription for medication they can decide to take to die peacefully if their suffering becomes intolerable. This compassionate bill did not pass during the 2019 New Mexico legislative session.
“If I had just one minute to speak with the legislature, I would try to help them understand there has to be a solution to this prolonged disease that is so, so terrible,” he states in the video recorded in 2019.
Bill was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in 2017. The life-shortening neurodegenerative disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, has no treatment or cure. The illness destroys nerve cells and robs people of their ability to use their hands, to walk, talk, swallow and eventually breathe.
“What people don’t understand about medical aid dying is it’s something that is an option, that people have choices,” he states in the video. “We’re Roman Catholic and those individuals who think it’s morally wrong and incorrect, I would try and help them understand how harrowing this disease is, how debilitating, how it takes everything away from you.”
Early in his career, Bill served as a medical service corps officer in the Army. For more than 20 years he was the CEO of the University of New Mexico Hospital, the state’s only academic medical center and primary teaching hospital for UNM’s School of Medicine. He capped off his career as New Mexico Secretary of the Human Services Department under Governor Gary Johnson.
“Mr. Johnson’s heartbreaking plea is yet another call for legislators to expand end-of-life care options in New Mexico,” said Elizabeth Armijo, National Advocacy Director for Compassion & Choices. “Terminally-ill New Mexicans don’t have time to wait for another legislative session. We urge legislators to pass the Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act in the 2021 session.”
Sixty-five percent of New Mexicans support medical aid in dying legislation, including fifty-eight percent of New Mexican Catholics. And the vast majority (88%) of voters agree with the statement: “How a terminally ill person chooses to end his/her life should be an individual decision and not a government decision.”
Since Bill’s death two more states have passed medical aid in dying laws. Now, ten jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C. and nine states authorize this end-of-life care option. The states include: California, Colorado, Hawai‘i, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Collectively, there are more than 40 years of combined experience implementing this medical practice and more than one out of five Americans (22%) currently have access to this compassionate option.
November is Native American Heritage Month
Native American Heritage Month celebrates the significant contributions and the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories of Native people in the U.S.
The NM Indian Affairs Department website indicates that New Mexico has approximately 228,400 Native American citizens, which represent nearly 10.9% of the state’s entire population. There are 23 tribes located in New Mexico – nineteen Pueblos, three Apache tribes (the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Mescalero Apache Tribe), and the Navajo Nation. In addition to those living on these reservations New Mexico has a considerable urban Indian population. Each Tribe is a sovereign nation with its own government, lifeways, traditions, and culture; and each tribe has a unique relationship with the federal and state governments.
The New Mexico End-of-Life Options Coalition is comprised of individuals from many diverse backgrounds and cultures, including members from indigenous communities in the state. Two Coalition members, Poem Swentzell and Christina Chavez, are American Indians that hail from indigenous New Mexican communities. As health care providers, they have witnessed the toll that serious illness can take on individuals, families, and communities. Their experiences with their own native cultures and people contribute to and strengthen our Coalition by bringing to light the perspectives, beliefs and concerns of diverse New Mexicans. You can read more about Poem and Christina in our Coalition Storybook.
International News: End of Life Options Down Under
adapted from Dying With Dignity – New South Wales newsletters
Recently, there has been a lot of activity in the effort to expand end-of-life options in the southern hemisphere. New Zealand, Tasmania and several Australian provinces have announced progress in passing legislation and referendums on aid in dying.
New Zealand votes YES for Compassion – Kiwis overwhelmingly voted yes in a
binding referendum on the End-of-Life Choices Act which now becomes law. It will take effect in November 2021. After three failed attempts over 25 years, preliminary figures from the Electoral Commission show 65% of New Zealanders – more than 1.5 million people – voted in favor of the act, which will allow terminally ill adults with fewer than six months to live to request assisted dying. Read more here.
Tasmania’s debate moves forward –
The Tasmanian Upper House of Parliament has passed an assisted dying bill. The bill will now move to the Lower House where its prospects are less certain – it is expected to face a sustained and well-funded campaign of opposition from religious groups when it is introduced in March 2021. While the bill was expected to pass the Tasmanian Upper House, the level of support far exceeded supporters’ expectations, as it passed unopposed.
Queensland, Australia – After winning a third term in a late October election, Queensland Australia’s Premier, Annastasia Palaszczuk, made a surprise announcement that her government would introduce Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) laws early next year. This is the first time that assisted dying laws have been made an election issue. With 85% community support, Queenslanders are finally dispelling the “political myth” that the issue is too controversial to take to the electorate.
Premier Palaszczuk spoke with great emotion about the recent death of her grandmother saying: “I don’t want anyone to have to go through that….it is a personal matter for a family and the individual and the medical practitioners. It is not for me to make the decision on behalf of them.”
South Australia – A group of South Australian Members of Parliament have committed to introduce an assisted dying bill in a matter of weeks. Details here. South Australia has had numerous previous attempts to pass VAD laws.
Q: What is the difference between the terms “medical aid in dying,” “assisted suicide,” and “euthanasia.” Why is it so important to always use the correct terminology?
A: Medical aid in dying is not suicide or euthanasia. Suicide often involves people who are severely depressed and no longer want to live. Those considering suicide may see no hope and often do not recognize that their problems may be treatable. Although suicide is not illegal, “assisting” a suicide remains a felony, including in states where medical aid in dying is authorized. Saying “assisted suicide” uses the language of a crime to describe a medical practice.
People who seek medical aid in dying already have a terminal prognosis of six months or less to live. They are not choosing to die; the disease is taking their life. Most request medical aid in dying not out of mental illness or clinical depression, but to maintain some dignity and comfort in their final days, to ease their pain and suffering, to maintain some control, and/or to help them experience a peaceful death. According to the American Psychological Association, medical aid in dying and suicide have “profound psychological differences” (See Medical Aid in Dying is Not Suicide).
Euthanasia, which is currently illegal throughout the United States, is commonly given as a lethal injection by a health care provider. With medical aid in dying, the terminally ill person must self-administer (take) the medication themselves, and therefore, always remain in control. The medical practice of medical aid in dying keeps the patient at the center, valuing their autonomy and self-determination in the process.
Using the correct terms to describe this end-of-life option is critical. Though polls show that Americans support medical aid in dying regardless of what terms are used to describe it, words do matter. Undiscriminating readers may accept inaccurate language, and the facts and opinions it advances, and become unknowingly and perhaps dangerously misled as a result. In order to avoid such misinformation, we urge accurate, value-neutral language, including such terms as: medical aid in dying, death with dignity, assisted dying, physician-assisted dying, and aid in dying. For more information on end-of-life terminology, see the Death With Dignity National Center’s website.
Countdown to the 2021 NM Legislature
The election is over and we now know who our state legislator will be for the upcoming 2021 NM Legislative session. Now just two months from the start of the session, our activities will be pivotal to passing the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act.
Action Item: Take a moment to write an email or letter to your newly elected or re-elected State Senator and Representative to congratulate them on their successful campaign. Tell them you support the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act and ask for their support for the bill to ensure that all New Mexicans are empowered to chart their own end-of-life journey. For your legislator’s contact information, click here or contact us at email@example.com.
Living and Dying Well: Telling the Story
Barak Wolff, Founding Member, NMEOLO Coalition
For the last ten months, it has been a wonderful challenge to blog about end-of-life issues for public consumption – for a general audience of seniors who are active in the City of Santa Fe, Senior Services programs. I’ve written eight blogs for their monthly Senior Scene Newsletter which is a 24-pager with a stunning cover, calendars, announcements, pictures, puzzles, features, advice columns, menus, etc…I think you get the idea. I started with a general introduction, moved on to the importance of our right to self-determination as the basis for advance care planning, reviewed the challenges of negotiating the medical system, covered palliative care and hospice, discussed a range of end-of-life options and dedicated the November issue to medical aid in dying. Here is a link to the website where the Senior Scene editions are archived: https://www.santafenm.gov/senior_scene_newsletter
The “challenge” comes from trying to balance enough information to be accurate and meaningful, but brief and informal enough to be accessible to a casual reader. I’m not sure how often I hit the mark, but I enjoyed trying. It also helped me distill down and get to the essence of my understandings of these issues — issues that those of us involved with the cause learn about, deal with, and think about in such a focused, detailed and nuanced way.
For my final blog in the series, I reviewed and recommended “The Art of Dying Well” by Katy Butler, a wonderful guide on aging and dying well that Mary Kay Brady reviewed in our Coalition’s February Monthly Update. I thought I’d share my take on the book, taken from my Senior Scene blog.
As my last column in this series, I want to share a book that I find myself coming back to again and again as I age and face challenging decisions. Written by best-selling author and award-winning science journalist, Katy Butler, “The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life” is a down-to-earth and practical manual for living, aging and dying with meaning and even joy, for those who are fortunate enough. Building upon her personal journey of painful discovery during her father’s prolonged dying as chronicled in her previous book, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” Katy has become a true expert on end-of-life matters.
As she writes in her Introduction, “This is a step-by-step guide to remaining as healthy and happy as possible, and as medically informed and unafraid, though the predictable health stages of later life, from vigorous old age to final breath. Further, the goal of each chapter is to help you thrive and keep you on a path to a good end of life – however you define it.” The book is helpful to folks at any age and stage in their journey with its emphasis on focusing on what matters to you most, be it staying functional, controlling physical pain, maintaining emotional well-being and/or having compassionate support for you and those you love.
And ultimately, Katy Butler, shares her aspirations in writing her book: “It is my deep hope that you will be peaceful and at ease at the moment of your death. That you may be safe, well supported and free from fear long before that day comes.” Her approach is very personal, almost intimate, as she describes the various stages of aging that we are likely to go through if we are fortunate enough to live long enough to experience them. It is written beautifully and invites us to reflect on our own experiences, losses, wishes, and what actions we might take as we contemplate what lies ahead.
The best to all as we venture forward and our journeys continue…Barak
From the Opening Page:
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
Flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
As it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
Can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
Can do it and I am, well,
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
Am I going to get rheumatism,
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
And went out into the morning,
– Mary Oliver