It’s been four years since the Connecticut General Assembly considered a bill that would allow terminally ill, mentally competent patients to end their lives. But advocates believe the time is ripe for the legislature to debate the issue again, at the very least, and new legislation is pending on both sides of the issue.
Assisted suicide legislation was raised in 2009 but it never received a public hearing in the Judiciary Committee. This year, lawmakers are introducing several similar pieces of assisted-suicide, or aid-in-dying legislation, including one that will start in the Public Health Committee.
Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, was adamant at a Capitol press conference Tuesday that there will be a debate on the issue this year even though it took citizen referendums to legalize assisted suicide in the two states, Oregon and Washington, that currently allow it.
Connecticut does not allow citizen referendums, which is why Ritter said the legislature is the appropriate place the introduce the concept.
Dr. Gary Blick was also at the news conference. Blick brought a lawsuit against the state in 2009 in an attempt to clarify a 1969 statute he believed was vague about whether it is proper for a physician to help a terminally ill patient end their life. He said that when the judge tossed the suit, she suggested a legislative route.
“I was left very, very empty when the judge refused to hear it and dismissed the case,” Blick said. “And the final words that she said were, ‘you should take this to the legislature.’”
Blick said bringing it back to the legislature was the natural path, but it’s likely to face opposition from the Catholic Church and other right-to-life organizations.
Connecticut Family Institute Executive Director Peter Wolfgang said this is an issue that cuts across the normal divide of pro-life and pro-choice.
“There’s a difference between nature taking its course and a situation where you’re trying to hasten a person’s death,” Wolfgang said. “We’re not trying to keep people alive against their will by extraordinary means. What we all oppose is actively taking a person’s life.”
He said that’s why physician-assisted suicide died on the ballot this past November in Massachusetts, where the measure was defeated 51 to 49 percent.
But Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion and Choices, said the measure didn’t fail because it didn’t have support. Coombs Lee’s group advocates in favor of aid in dying, and she said the opposition in Massachusetts outspent advocates in that state by a 5-to-1 margin and were able to run a surge of ads that created doubt.
“Those ads didn’t try to undermine citizen support because they knew citizen support was overwhelming. What the ads attempted to do, and did do, was to cast doubt on whether this was the right bill,” Coombs Lee said. “Public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of dying people being able to ask their doctor for aid in their dying.”
But she admitted that it may be easier for citizens to go into a private voting booth to cast a ballot than it will be for lawmakers to vote in the public sphere.
“They’re going to be subjected to extraordinary pressure from people who believe it is morally wrong, or religious leaders of the state,” Coombs Lee said.
However, Coombs Lee said she remains confident the measure will be successful because of the public support behind it.
The Connecticut legislation would be fashioned after the legislation in Oregon and Washington, which allows a terminally ill person with a diagnosis of less than six months to live, who is deemed mentally and psychologically competent, to get a prescription that can be self-administered for a humane and dignified death.
Coombs Lee said support for the measure cuts across all different types of demographic groups, but the movement toward aid in dying is largely being driven by the aging Baby Boomer generation.
It’s a conversation more and more people are having. There’s also more research on the issue because it’s been 15 years since Oregon adopted it.
She said that since 1997, only 673 people in Oregon have taken advantage of the law, but many more have benefited.
“Simply knowing that they can escape intolerable suffering at the end of life brings peace of mind,” Coombs Lee said.
Ritter said the Public Health Committee will raise the bill and hold a public hearing on the issue. Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, already has submitted SB 48, An Act Concerning Physician-Assisted Suicide. That bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee on Jan. 9 but has yet to be scheduled for a public hearing.
On the other side of the issue, there is a proposal by Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, that would establish a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment for manslaughter in the second degree for doctors who assist another person’s suicide. That bill, SB 229, was referred to the Judiciary Committee on Jan. 22 and also has yet to be scheduled for a public hearing.