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Attorney General George Jepsen (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

The state has no compelling interest in preventing terminally ill patients from choosing to end their lives, Attorney General George Jepsen told a legislative committee during a hearing Monday.

Jepsen was one of hundreds of people to offer testimony on legislation that would allow a doctor to prescribe lethal medication to a dying patient. This is the second consecutive year the the Public Health Committee has held hearings on such a bill, but Jepsen sponsored similar legislation 20 years ago when he served in the state Senate.

The policy, which has been approved in three other states, is controversial and opponents are concerned that if it passes, terminally ill people may be coerced into suicide. Jepsen said constituents have told him that dying patients already are taking their own lives.

“This happens all the time but it happens in the dark and all the issues that you raise pursuant to coercion are swept under the rug. It would be much better and far more sensitive to bring it to the spotlight where there is an orderly process,” he said.

Some argue that the bill would set a dangerous precedent by sanctioning suicide for some people. Last week, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he was undecided about the proposal but told reporters he was “uneasy” about having a state policy that allowed taking proactive steps to end a life.

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Rep. Whit Betts (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

On Monday, Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, called the proposal “a very slippery slope” and asked whether Jepsen believed it was appropriate for the state to have such a law.

“The legislature lives on slippery slopes,” Jepsen answered. “Life is all about drawing lines and sometimes living with those choices. This equivalent law has been in effect in Oregon since it was enacted in ‘94 . . . there’s been no abuse and they’ve avoided any difficulty with slippery slopes.”

James McGaughey, executive director of the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, said that anecdotal evidence suggests that difficulties have been encountered elsewhere. He said protections included in a similar policy adopted in the Netherlands are not always working. 

“Surveys reveal that many Dutch doctors now consider having a long-term disability with a ‘poor prognosis’ for improvement as justification for writing a lethal prescription,” he said. “. . . Those examples are real and somewhat frightening for those of us who advocate for people with disabilities.”

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Elaine Kolb (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

People with disabilities have been among the bill’s most outspoken opponents. While supporters often refer to the legislation as “death with dignity,” some with disabilities see the term as a disparaging statement that likens a loss of faculties with a loss of dignity.

“They are saying that ‘I’d rather be dead than be you,’” Elaine Kolb, a disabilities activist, said. “. . . This is something that people are saying to people with disabilities and there is contempt in it and there is contempt in this bill.”

Rep. Susan Johnson, co-chairwoman of the Public Health Committee, told Kolb the legislation was designed to help terminally ill patients, rather than diminish people with disabilities.

“This bill really has nothing to do with disabilities. It has to do with people at the end of their life. Those are two different things,” she said.

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Comptroller Kevin Lembo (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Proponents view the issue as a matter of personal choice. Comptroller Kevin Lembo told the committee that he would want the choice for himself if he had a terminal illness.

“Whether or not I exercise my choice in the case of some future terminal illness would be decided by me with my family and my physician,” he said. “. . . I hope that we can agree that no one party can impose their beliefs and positions on another. Careful construction of this law protects every individual from participation.”

Lembo cited statistics from Oregon where 1,050 people had prescriptions for lethal medication written since the law went into effect. Not all of them opted to take their lives with that medication. He said 673 people have died from ingesting the medication in Oregon.

“It’s clear that having the option, having the choice and having the medication is sometimes enough to help us weather any suffering,” he said.

Public Health Committee staff posted 400 pieces of written public testimony for today’s hearing.