In taking a step back to reflect on this legislative session, thinking about what could have gone differently and what tactics we will utilize during the next legislative sessions, Death with Dignity National’s Center’s Executive Director, Peg Sandeen, caught up with End of Life Options New Mexico’s Board Chair, Barak Wolff, to talk more about strategies they implemented in pursuing passage of the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act, which went into effect on June 18, 2021.

During their interview, Barak shared several strategies he believes contributed to the win New Mexico had been waiting for all these years. You can hear about them at length in the full interview video, but we wanted to share some highlights as a tangible list advocates in other states can borrow from in implementing strategies for their own state death with dignity bills and grassroots efforts. While we know there is never a guaranteed win within the legislative process, strategically allocating resources and maximizing efforts in efficient ways have proven effective.

The Top Five List: Preparing for Passing Death with Dignity in all States
  1. Lead with compassion. You don’t have to run a coalition or campaign to be a strong leader in this movement. Recruiting volunteers to do the hard work it takes to get these laws passed, year after year, takes compassion and effective methods for building grassroots momentum. Barak explains, “Respond to these folks in a caring and supportive way, that brings them into the movement, and they understand that what you experienced shouldn’t happen to another person.” We have found most advocates in this movement get involved after losing a loved one in a tragic way. Prioritize empathy when motivating your team.
  2. Engage in building supporters year-round. Political movements should be active year-round, not only during legislative sessions. Volunteers and advocates sometimes drop out when not engaged after a legislative session ends, especially when discouraged by a loss. Barak shared, “This is going to take some time. And in the meantime, we can work on, how about you work with us to talk to folks about their advanced directives.” You can also have them take meaningful actions like educating folks on end-of-life care options, sharing their story publicly, handing out materials, talking to health professionals and other relevant organizations about aid-in-dying, and planning for the following legislative year.
  3. Build strategic relationships. In order to get a death with dignity law passed, you need strong bill sponsors. You would also be wise to engage advocates with relevant backgrounds, including public health, law, and medicine. Chances are, these folks have strong connections to political figures with the power to promote your state’s bill and move it forward. Also, don’t just pay attention to politicians who are already elected. Acutely following candidates who are likely in line with death with dignity can also be advantageous. As Barak pointed out, “You really need to do the homework. By the time we got into 2021, we had a spreadsheet with all 112 legislators.” They noted where each legislator fell on the death with dignity support spectrum, and knew where to expend energy accordingly. They also shared this information with bill sponsors, so they could reach out to legislators appropriately.
  4. Don’t Give Up. “Good things take time.” We have to be patient and remember why we got involved in this movement in the first place. Of course we all have the goal to see death with dignity as an option for terminally ill patients across the country. But, that isn’t the only reason we are involved in this movement. As Barak reminds us, “We are going to pass a law as part of this movement if we can, but it is really about a movement to honor our right to self-determination, our right to have some control over the end of our life, hopefully in a way that we had during our lives, and that is what the essence is…It takes time, it is a journey.” Not one state that has a death with dignity law got it done on the first go. Sometimes, taking a breath and remembering why we do this work can help us focus and recharge, especially on the tough days.
  5. Think bigger. Ultimately, aim to change the entire system. Barak says it best. “Our impact isn’t just passing laws…it’s really the rest of what it does, having these kinds of conversations, raising the awareness…improvements in the entire end-of-life care system…we need to be prepared to deal with the entire area.” Getting death with dignity laws passed is a priority, but so is improving the quality of all patients facing their final days. Have discussions with your local hospice and palliative care providers, engage volunteers who want to provide personalized and more empathetic services to folks making final arrangements, and help normalize these difficult conversations about death. Remember, we all have to die someday, so why not be a change agent for making it a more transparent and inclusive experience?

After years of planning, court battles, recruiting volunteers, and building on previous losses and gains, Barak shared his enthusiasm for their successful year of getting their aid-in-dying law in New Mexico,

“2021 was our charm, and we finally got it done.”

Watch the full 30-minute interview to glean insight, share in Peg and Barak’s passion for doing this work, and procure additional ideas for effective advocacy methods that can contribute to aid-in-dying bills turning into implemented laws.

Thank you, New Mexico, for reminding us why we continue to fight for death with dignity, and refueling our tanks with tangible actions to keep charging forward into the next legislative year!