HARTFORD, CT — Actor James Naughton, whose wife died from pancreatic cancer in 2013, was surprised to learn that aid-in-dying legislation has never made it out of the Public Health Committee in Connecticut.
Naughton, a Tony Award winning actor who had starring roles in movies like Planet of the Apes and TV shows like Gossip Girl, was at the state Capitol speaking with lawmakers Tuesday about the legislation.
“My wife one day said to me, ‘I don’t want to wake up anymore’,” Naughton said. “And that night when I got into bed with her around 11 o’clock, she had been asleep and she woke up and said to me, ‘I thought I wasn’t going to have to wake up anymore’.”
It was in that moment that Naughton wished his wife, Pam Parsons, had more options.
“That’s how you know you’re right on the point of this issue,” Naughton, who grew up in West Hartford and lives in Weston, said. “And we didn’t have the option at the time and I don’t think anyone should be in the position to hear that from their loved one and not have some way to help them.”
Connecticut has been debating the issue for a decade.
“We’re trying to provide terminally ill people, like Jim’s wife, Pam, one more option at the end of life,” Tim Appleton, campaign manager for Compassion & Choices, said.
He said Naughton’s story is not unusual.
Appleton said that when some people get to that point they begin to take actions to help their spouses end their lives with dignity and as a result they end up in the criminal justice system.
Prosecutions are not unusual, either.
Tom Meyer of Roxbury pleaded guilty to helping his 97-year-old mother end her life.
In 2014, he told the Public Health Committee that she got to “die peacefully in her own bed on her own terms.”
“When you reach the point when you know you can go no further, who are others to say how you must die?” Meyer said.
Aid-in-dying is currently legal in seven states and Washington, D.C.
Supporters of the legislation believe it has a better chance this year to become law because a past opponent has decided to remain neutral this year.
The Connecticut State Medical Society has adopted a position of “engaged neutrality,” which means it’s leaving it up to its member physicians.
“The CSMS is committed to protecting its members’ freedom to decide what medical aid-in-dying options to provide to patients in accordance with each physician’s personally held values, beliefs and ethical standards, including the decision whether or not to write a prescription for a lethal dose of medication, if legalized in Connecticut,” the organization said in a statement.
Appleton said in all the other states that have approved aid-in-dying legislation, the physician organizations in those states have taken action to remain neutral.
“It’s voluntary for the physicians who may or may not prescribe this,” Appleton said.
He said legislation like this takes time. However, he said the Connecticut State Medical Society’s decision to remain neutral though is a “game changer.”
Other organizations, however, are maintaining their opposition.
“The advocates of physician-assisted suicide call it ‘aid-in-dying’ in an effort to remove the negative connotations of the word ‘suicide,’ but the passage of physician-assisted suicide would be bad public policy and would create a terrible precedent in Connecticut,” the Catholic Bishops of Connecticut, said in an email. “The Catholic Conference does not support keeping a patient alive by extraordinary means against that patient’s will. We support true aid-in-dying, which is hospice and palliative care. What we oppose is licensing doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for the purpose of taking a human life, prescribing suicide as a treatment.”
Many who oppose the concept of aid-in-dying fear it’s an attempt to hasten the end of the lives of the disabled and elderly patients who need more from the healthcare system.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said they were careful to listen to opponents about any “undue pressure” on the person making a life-ending decision.
“We put in belts and suspenders to make sure that they both verbally and in writing indicated this is what they wanted,” Steinberg said.
He said not only do two medical professionals have to be involved, but they’ve looked at the experience from other states to make sure “we are mimicking the best practices.”
Right now, the nearest state with an aid-in-dying law is Vermont. Massachusetts held a 2012 referendum asking voters if state-licensed physicians should be allowed to prescribe medication to a terminally ill patient to end the patient’s life. Voters narrowly rejected the measure 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent.
A 2015 Quinnipiac University poll found Connecticut voters support legislation that would allow a doctor to prescribe lethal drugs to help terminally ill patients end their own lives by a 63-31 percent margin. Among those over the age of 55, the approval rating was 59 percent.
A public hearing on this year’s bill will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday, March 18, at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.