Hugh McQuaid file photo
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey (Hugh McQuaid file photo)

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey had a controversial bill permitting doctors help terminally ill patients end their lives referred to the Judiciary Committee this week rather than the Public Health Committee where it has stalled in previous sessions.

“In the past, the public health committee showed reluctance to take up the issue, in part knowing it would have to also go before the much larger judiciary committee, so the Speaker wanted to remove that factor from the process,” Sharkey’s spokesman, Larry Perosino, said Friday.

The traditional legislative process would still require the Public Health Committee to sign off on the bill at some point before it could be raised for floor votes.

So far, the bill only has concept language seeking to allow “that, with appropriate protections, at the request of a terminally ill patient who is mentally competent, a physician may prescribe a medication that such patient can self-ingest when and if such patient chooses to avoid prolonged suffering and bring about his or her own peaceful death.”

Sharkey has been a supporter of the legislation, which has been a hot-button issue at the state Capitol for the past two legislative sessions. The Public Health Committee held widely-attended hearings on the issue during both years. The hearings drew emotional testimony from residents both for and against the proposal, but supporters have lacked the votes to pass the bill out of the committee.

This year, the bill will start in Judiciary, a much larger panel with a later bill passage deadline. Sixteen Democrats co-sponsored the bill, which was referred to the committee Friday. They include Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, the committee’s co-chairman.

“We have learned a lot about the need for compassionate end-of-life choice, the support for it in the community and how such legislation can be safely implemented here,” Coleman said in a press release. “I expect to build on the support we already have, in the coming months.”

The bill has long been anticipated by advocates on the both sides of the issue. Both have held events outside the Capitol in an effort to build support for their position.

People with disabilities and their advocates have been among the policy’s most outspoken critics. Many testified against the bill during hearings in the Public Health Committee, voicing concerns over a “slippery slope,” which they fear may see doctors writing lethal prescriptions for conditions like long-term disabilities.

In an email, Stephen Mendelsohn, a member of an opposition group called Second Thoughts Connecticut, said the group is already organizing against the legislation. He expressed concerns the Judiciary Committee would hold a public hearing on the bill before drafting specific policy language.

“As support for legalization of assisted suicide drops dramatically once specific legislation is released to the public, proponents may be attempting an end run around having to have the dangerous details criticized by opponents. We believe that this would deprive both the public and members of the General Assembly of sound debate,” Mendelsohn said.

Besides Sharkey and Coleman, the proposal has some influential members of the legislature supporting it. Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, and Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, the co-chairwomen of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee are both among the co-sponsors of the legislation.

Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization that counsels people on ways they can control when and how they die if they wish, held a forum in October to discuss legislation and what’s been done in other states. Second Thoughts Connecticut participated in a conference in November aimed at building opposition to this year’s legislation.

Currently five U.S. states — Oregon, Washington, Montana, New Mexico, and Vermont — have have legalized aid-in-dying, according to Compassion & Choices. Oregon and Washington state passed it through ballot initiatives, while Montana and New Mexico legalized it through separate court cases. Vermont passed it through the legislative process.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted last year, 61 percent of Connecticut voters support the concept of allowing doctors to legally prescribe lethal drugs to help terminally ill patients end their own lives.

However, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has expressed “worries” about the legislation. He answered questions about the policy earlier this month when he appointed Elizabeth Ritter, a former legislator who championed the proposal in prior years, as the state commissioner of aging.

“I have a slightly different view—although not as different as some people would paint it either. Both of my parents passed away as a result of very long and difficult illnesses,” Malloy told reporters. “I think they both a significant played significant decision-making roles in the treatment they would receive and how long they would receive it. I’m in favor of legislation that allows people to play that role.”