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Although legislation that would allow mentally competent, terminally ill patients to medically end their lives did not make it through the legislative session this year, supporters are already gearing up for Connecticut’s 2015 legislative session.

Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization that counsels people on ways they can control when and how they die if they wish, held a forum Thursday to educate people about, and gain support for, the controversial issue.

Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee said the goal of the evening was to energize people to become activists for right-to-die legislation.

“Too many people suffer needlessly, die prolonged deaths,” Coombs Lee said “People can have peace of mind when they have control and choices.”

Unlike in Oregon and Washington, where such laws have been passed by referendum, right-to-die legislation would not be decided at the polls in Connecticut, Coombs Lee said. It is decided at the legislative level, so it is important for supporters to not only call their legislators and urge them to vote in its favor, but to get friends in other districts to do so, too.

The bulk of the evening was taken up by a panel in which advocates and elected officials spoke about why they believe right-to-die legislation is necessary to a packed auditorium at Real Art Ways in Hartford.

YouTube video
Prior to the panel, attendees saw a short video featuring Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old terminally-ill cancer patient who described why she is choosing to end her life through medicine. Maynard this week became the face of the right-to-die movement, and the video has been viewed more than 5 million times since it was posted Oct. 6.

The panel was followed by a viewing of “How to Die in Oregon,” a documentary that looks first-hand at the right-to-die resources provided in that state. The film has won a number of awards, including the Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries at the 27th Sundance Film Festival.

Legislation that would allow a doctor to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to mentally competent, terminally-ill patients failed to pass the Connecticut General Assembly’s Public Health Committee this year, but it’s likely to be raised again in a few months.

The Connecticut legislation would have been similar to the laws passed in Oregon and Washington, which allow a terminally ill person with a diagnosis of less than six months to live, and who is deemed mentally and psychologically competent, to get a prescription that could be self-administered for a humane and dignified death.

Coombs Lee said the Connecticut bill would be “substantially identical” to the Oregon bill. They would first have to be deemed mentally competent and terminally ill, with statements regarding their prognosis and diagnosis from two different doctors. They would then need to fill out forms stating their wishes and that they are not being coerced into doing so. The forms would have to be signed by two different witnesses, one of whom could not be a relative, an heir, or the patient’s doctor.

She said the bill would not cover children under the age of 18, and does not see the legislation in Oregon ever changing to do so, either.

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Panelist Gary Holder-Winfield, a Democratic state Senator from New Haven, said many people who do support the legislation would not do so if it included children.

Coombs Lee also said the legislation would exclude people with dementia and cognitive declines, since they could not make the choice for themselves.

“It is an issue for another day but is no less compelling,” she said.

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Coombs Lee said people who do receive the prescription actually tend to live longer because they feel they are in control of their situation, which improves their courage and endurance. It also prevents them from acting impulsively, such as shooting themselves or leaping to their deaths.

“The terrible burden and anxiety are lifted,” she said.

She also said 35 to 50 percent of people who do get the medication do not end up taking it, and die naturally.

Coombs Lee said the scientific data from studying the results of the Oregon law since it was enacted in 1997 back that up.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted this year, 61 percent of the public support the concept.

Tim Appleton, the Compassion & Choices Connecticut Campaign Manager, said prior to the panel the nearly two-to-one favorable support shows the momentum for such a law is building, and that people in every district in the state support it.

He hopes the legislation will be revisited again when the next session begins in January, and they would campaign vigorously for the law throughout the entire session.

The proposed legislation has some support at the state level. Holder-Winfield, who spoke with some emotion during the discussion, said he became a strong advocate for the bill after watching his mother suffer for 3½ years before she died.

“I’ve never been opposed to it, but after experiencing what she experienced, I don’t know how I could hold a different opinion,” he said.

However, Coombs Lee said, many elected officials’ natural reaction to such a bill is to run, since no one gets punished for backing away. Usually, an elected official who supports such legislation also supports a number of other positions favorable with their constituents, and will get support for those.

Right-to-die opponents, however, are single-issue opponents, she said. Only about 20 percent of those polled opposed right-to-die legislation, but they are a vocal minority, “a minority politicians fear.”

Hugh McQuaid file photo
Some of that vocal opposition has come from the Family Institute of Connecticut, whose executive director, Peter Wolfgang, said Thursday that it is nothing more than a campaign to legalize assisted suicide.

The distinction between assisted suicide and aid in dying is not recognized in Connecticut law, he said, saying the state courts explicitly stated in 2010 that the manslaughter law includes self-killing for terminal illness.

“The distinction only exists in proponents minds,” he said. “It is not recognized by medical or legal communities.”

Wolfgang, who was not able to attend the panel, said the legislation has been defeated two years in a row and he expects to fight it again next year. He also expects to be joined by allies from a wide spectrum, such as advocates against elderly abuse and people with disabilities. Many of those groups, he said, are usually more politically to the left than the Family Institute, but are “all united in the understanding that assisted suicide is bad public policy that puts vulnerable populations at risk.”

Wolfgang stressed that nobody in his organization supports keeping patients alive by extraordinary means against their will, but they also don’t support “assisting in suicide and granting immunity from taking someone’s life.”

Holder-Winfield said the term “assisted suicide” is used to make people uncomfortable discussing the topic, and is not an accurate way to describe the legislation.

Coombs Lee said suicide, which she does not support, is cutting short a life someone has yet to live. Someone like Maynard, who loves life, Coombs Lee said, would not want to end her life early.

“We want to cut short unbearable suffering,” Coombs Lee said. Phrasing and language is important because of the need to educate potential allies.

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Assisted suicide sounds like helping someone mentally incompetent end their life, said panelist Bethany Bowen Brookmyer, a policy analyst for the Connecticut Association of Human. People and politicians need to be educated and made aware of what it means not just to the ill, but to their families and loved ones.

Several members of the public also spoke in favor of right-to-die legislation. Suzanne Duclos, a registered nurse, said she became very passionate about the bill when she first heard about it. She said when she posted about it on Facebook she received 356 replies, only 20 percent of which were negative.

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A member of the audience asks a question at Real Art Ways in Hartford on Thursday. (doug hardy / ctnewsjunkie)