Few thorny topics arouse the passions of the masses like death. The finality of the act of dying, who causes the death and under what circumstances cause us to sit up and pay attention even as other controversial issues provoke a yawn.
From capital punishment to abortion, Americans reserve a special place in public discourse for matters of life and death. Yet even by those standards, physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is in a league of its own. And unlike the two aforementioned life-and-death issues, PAS doesn’t break down neatly along party and philosophical lines.
We won’t be in a position to know whether Connecticut will join five other states in legalizing it until the new legislative session begins after the new year, but it seems likely that a bill will be debated. Last year’s legislation died — so to speak — in the Committee on Public Health. A legislative public hearing on the same subject two sessions ago resulted in the same fate: it went nowhere.
What we do know is that the Family Institute of Connecticut is girding itself for a battle against any PAS legislation. Last week the institute co-sponsored a two-day event in Windsor Locks called East Coast Against Assisted Suicide. That event reportedly attracted 140 attendees from around the country and about a dozen expert presenters.
As readers of this column know, I’ve always been fascinated by issues that cut across ideological lines. By a margin of 61 to 32 percent, a Quinnipiac poll conducted earlier this year found strong support in Connecticut for PAS.
At a ratio of nearly 2-1, support among the 1,878 registered Connecticut voters who answered the Q-poll was overwhelming. Support among men was about the same as it was generally, but it slipped to 58-33 among women and a bare 51-percent majority among Republicans.
However, when Quinnipiac pollsters asked respondents, if they were terminally ill with less than six months to live, whether they would avail themselves of the services of a suicide doctor, support dropped by approximately half among all groups.
This suggests a certain softness among those who say they support PAS. Many supporters like the idea of assisted suicide until confronted with the reality that they themselves might use it. Opponents, on the other hand, are pretty passionate about the subject — as passionate as pro-lifers are about abortion.
To wit, the Family Institute of Connecticut lumps both euthanasia and abortion together as one topic on the institute’s website, stating simply that the FIC “believes in the sanctity of life from the moment of conception until natural death.”
A disabilities rights group called Second Thoughts Massachusetts says it played a key role in narrowly defeating a 2012 ballot initiative that would have legalized assisted suicide in the Bay State. A Second Thoughts Connecticut group also exists, but there is very little information about it online.
Typically, disabilities rights groups align themselves with progressives because they believe those on the left will advocate more aggressively for the cause of the disabled. In the case of PAS, however, Second Thoughts found itself at odds with the progressives in communities such as Martha’s Vineyard and Northampton, while the blue-collar communities and mid-sized cities, almost all of which are controlled by Democrats, nonetheless voted against the initiative.
Second Thoughts opposes PAS on the grounds that in a profit-driven healthcare system, “pressure to cut costs . . . can lead patients, families and doctors to choose the cheapest alternative, even if that is assisted suicide.” That sentiment was echoed recently by Stephen Mendelsohn, a member of Second Thoughts Connecticut, in a letter to the Norwich Bulletin in response to an earlier editorial.
The knotty problem faced by legislators for whom political survival is paramount is the tricky political calculus involved. In Massachusetts, lawmakers were able to wash their hands of the matter by letting the people decide in a popular referendum. Since ballot initiatives are almost impossible to arrange in Connecticut, lawmakers here will have to exhibit extraordinary courage — a quality in short supply in Hartford.
Unless uncommon valor breaks out at the Capitol, PAS advocates just might have to wait awhile longer.
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