Proponents of a controversial bill permitting doctors help terminally ill patients end their lives are hoping modifications to last year’s proposal, a change of venue, and national awareness of the issue will help get the bill passed.
A lobbyist for Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization committed to giving people choices at the end of their lives, said this year’s bill requires a terminally ill, mentally competent patients to ask their attending physicians for a prescription to help end their lives not once, but twice. It also requires a 15-day waiting period between those requests. Both of the requests require an affidavit that must be witnessed by two people. Those two people can’t be an heir, relative, an employee of the medical facility, or the doctor.
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, a vocal supporter of the legislation, said he doesn’t expect the opposition to change their minds based on the changes made to the bill. However, he said, the debate feels much larger than it did last year.
“It’s a larger, louder conversation,” Winfield said. “It’s got traction in ways it didn’t a year ago.”
One of the reasons the debate has gotten larger and louder is the story of Brittany Maynard.
Maynard, 29, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and garnered national media attention when she moved to Oregon to take advantage of its death with dignity law. She took her own life on Nov. 1, 2014.
Maggie Karner of Bristol, who suffers from the same form of brain cancer as Maynard, said, “Brittany put a face on it first and made it personal.”
But the message Karner wants to send is that it’s not about any individual.
“It’s about all of us as a society and radical changes to how we practice healthcare and how we operate as a society,” Karner said. “It’s not about individuals, so you have to take emotions out of it.”
At a press conference Monday, Karner said she’s not looking forward to how her disease is going to progress, “but if we endorse patient suicide as our statewide policy for dealing with pain and the financial burdens at the end of life — we’re going to end up embracing a whole new ethic that confuses compassionate medical care with a prescription for death.”
Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, said the organization understands Maynard was a “strong woman,” but “laws against assisted suicide are to protect the weak and vulnerable in our society.”
He said the disabled and the elderly could feel added pressure to end their lives if the legislation passed.
“There are no safeguards you could put in this bill that would make it safe,” Wolfgang said. “That would make the underlying premise a good thing.”
Stephen Glassman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said there are “smart safeguards” in the legislation.
“If we respect people’s decisions about life, we must also give equal respect to their personal assessments regarding their end of life decisions,” he said.
This year’s bill was drafted with the help of the Connecticut Bar Association and has the support of House Speaker Brendan Sharkey.
Opponents of the bill also say it requires physicians to lie on the death certificate by listing the underlying illness and ignoring that the death was a “suicide,” Wolfgang said.
Tim Appleton, Connecticut campaign manager for Compassion & Choices, said proponents of the measure have listened to the opposition and believe they have increased the number of safeguards in the bill.
He said support for aid-in-dying legislation is increasing and they feel good about passage of the legislation this year.
In the last two years, the bill died in the Public Health Committee. This year the debate will begin in the Judiciary Committee. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.