This is the first year the “right-to-die” or “assisted suicide” bill, depending on your perspective, has received a public hearing in the Connecticut legislature. Opponents and supporters alike lined up to offer their opinions and emotions at a public hearing Wednesday.
Disability advocates expressed concern that legislation allowing a terminally ill patient to take a lethal dose of medication to end their own life would be used by the government as a way to take the lives of elderly and disabled individuals, who require large amounts of health care.
“Some of us have terminal moments that we live through, and then we go on,” Cathy Ludlum, a disability rights advocate, said Wednesday at a press conference prior to the hearing on the legislation.
Ludlum, a law professor, a hospice nurse, a state commissioner, and a nursing home administrator each said they believe the legislation being heard by the Public Health Committee opens the door to assisted suicide for those who get their health care through government systems like Medicaid and Medicare.
“Will the incentive be instead of hospitalization, instead of treatment . . . we will pay for assisted suicide?” Teresa Wells, an administrator from the Mary Wade Home in New Haven, said.
Right-to-die advocates say that’s absolutely not the case.
Dr. Gary Blick, who brought a lawsuit against the state in 2009 seeking clarification regarding a 1969 law that he believed was vague about whether it’s proper for a physician to help a terminally ill patient end their life, said there seems to be some misunderstanding about what is or isn’t in the legislation.
Pointing to his 91-year-old mother, Blick said that if she had a stroke and was disabled this legislation does not allow him to obtain a prescription from her doctor and to shove pills down her throat to end her life.
“That’s murder,” Blick said. “That deserves jail.”
Connecticut’s legislation is fashioned after the Oregon and Washington laws, which allow 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.
Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, said the law in Oregon has been on the books in that state for 15 years. Since then, only 64 percent — or 673 of the prescriptions written — have been taken by patients.
“All we want is the choice for people to talk about it with their healthcare providers,” Blick said. “This gives people another option.”
He said it’s not right for most people but there is going to be a select few who would like to have it as an option.
One of those people is Sara Myers.
Myers, 58, who suffers from ALS, said she was diagnosed more than two years ago and faces total paralysis as her nervous system disease progresses.
“I am here to support this bill because I think I want the choice whether I use it or not,” Myers said.
She said that if she makes the choice, she wants it done humanely and she wants to be surrounded by loved ones. She said she’s not ready to make the choice today, but having the legal option to do it would “give me great comfort today.”
“It would help me sleep a whole lot better,” she added.
William Meyer, who was arrested in 1994 for taking his 88-year-old father’s life, said there are many safeguards in the legislation to make sure that the choice is being made by the patient. He said his father’s doctor of 25 years and his minister agreed that he was making the right decision when he slipped the plastic bag over his father’s head and held his hands as he ended his life.
Meyer was arrested for second-degree manslaughter only after he told his story to Connecticut Magazine, the New York Times, and 60 Minutes. He was given accelerated rehabilitation. Meyer’s father suffered from cancer.
But right-to-die advocates were not fazed by the number of questions lawmakers had about the bill since this is the first time it has received a public hearing.
Blick said patients with Alzheimer’s or other mental impairments would not qualify under this legislation because they would not be mentally competent to make the decision to take their own life.
“Your guardian can not make this decision for you. If you have Alzheimer’s it’s unfortunate, we really can’t do much for Alzheimer’s either, but this bill does not pertain to that terminal illness,” Blick said.
The legislation requires consultation with two physicians and one of those two could refer a patient to a mental health professional if they thought the person was not competent to make the decision.
Stephen Mikochik, a emeritus professor at Temple Law School, said that 95 percent of people who choose to end their own lives are clinically depressed. He said if they get treatment for their depression it’s likely they won’t feel like taking their own lives.
But Blick, who deals with end-of-life care, argues that clinical depression does not mean someone does not have the mental competence necessary to make their own decisions.
Ritter said the early onset of a disease does not render someone terminal and therefore wouldn’t apply to this legislation. She said the person has to be given six months to live and the patient must take the lethal dosage voluntarily. She said it’s not “assisted suicide” because there is no one administering the medication to them.