HARTFORD, CT — (Updated 4 p.m. ) A public hearing on what some call aid-in-dying and others call assisted suicide drew passionate testimony Monday from advocates on both sides of the issue.
The legislation seeks to allow a physician to prescribe medication at the request of a mentally competent patient with six months to live.
Even though Connecticut has been debating the issue for a decade, no associated bill has never even made it out of the Public Health Committee to a full debate, let alone a vote, in the House or Senate.
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.
Of the dozens testifying in support of the bill, no one’s message was more compelling than Sharon Hines, a Middletown resident who has stage four lung cancer and also happens to be an oncology nurse practitioner.
“The cancer in my brain is growing and I am running out of acceptable treatment options,” Hines told the committee.
Hines said she has been given a prognosis of “six to nine months” to live — and she wants to live those months on her terms.
“My focus has always been on quality not quantity,” Hines said. “Medical aid and dying should be an option for those of us with terminal illness. I want to die in my own home on my own terms.”
“My husband supports my decision,” Hines said. “My son supports my decision. My friends support my decision.”
Referring to the fact that other states allow assisted suicide, Hines added: “I should not be forced to move out of state to be a medical refugee.”
Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, said she could empathize with Hine’s situation, “because I lost my step-mom in August to lung cancer.”
But Cook said one issue she was struggling with is that when the issue has been discussed in past legislative sessions there has been testimony “that it would take up to 90 pills to end your life.”
Cook said she found that hard to stomach and she asked Hines if she had any concerns about, basically, using medication to induce death. “Have we solved that problem,” Cook asked Hines.
Cook said if a person takes oral medication then it amounts to about 90 pills. Those pills are often difficult for someone on the verge of death to swallow.
Dr. Robert Russo said he would want to be there to help assist in the administration of the medications because a person could vomit the pills up or have a seizure.
“I struggle with the fact that people don’t make this decision on their own,” Cook said.
She said she fears that people would want to speed up their death so they’re no longer a burden on their families.
Hines said she wasn’t a scientist but she believed one advantage to an aid-in-dying bill is that a person could take his or her death at a time of their choosing. “Those last days can be the most difficult for the patient and the family,” Hines said. “It’s about quality of life.” Hines said when she dies she wants it to be “peaceful and gentle.”
She’s not alone.
Tony Award winning actor James Naughton, teared up while telling the committee about the painful death from pancreatic cancer his wife endured in 2013.
Even after the cancer was discovered, Naughton told the committee, he said his wife was “determined to make the best of it.” He said they went on with their lives, “grandchildren arrived, she was the ultimate baby whisperer,” the actor joked.
But then the cancer began to take its toll. “She became dependent on pain pumps. I was the caregiver, managing the pumps, the drains and the phenomenal list of medications,” Naughton said.
One day, in 2013, Naughton’s wife told him she didn’t want to deal with it anymore.
Naughton said he looked at his wife with surprise, and she told him: “Jimmy we’ve always known that this was a fatal disease.”
Naughton told the committee when he thinks about it now he realizes that “we were dealing with life and death strategies every day. He said the legislation is “weighty but welcome” because, “when the person you loved your whole life, with whom you fought so hard for four years to survive, there is nothing you wouldn’t do to help, what she wants, what she deserves, to help her be relieved from her suffering.”
Naughton said that’s why he testified Monday — “because I’m still trying to do the right thing by Pam.”
Immediately following Naughton’s testimony was Kim Callinan, chief executive officer of Compassion & Choices, an organization that advocates to pass medical aid and dying laws across the country.
“What this legislation is really about is who decides,” Callinan said. “It is the terminally ill person in consultation with their doctor, their faith leaders and their loved ones — or the government.”
Amy Edwards of Milford said she watched both her parents suffer from terminal cancer.
“It was a horrible way to die and a horrible way for my family and I to watch their heartbreaking suffering,” Edwards said. “We do it for our beloved animals — why can’t we do this for humankind.”
Many who oppose the concept of what they call assisted suicide fear it’s an attempt to hasten the end of the lives of the disabled and elderly patients who demand more from the healthcare system.
Others, such as state Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, worry that it might be “opening Pandora’s Box,” as far as how the law could be interpreted.
At a press conference right before the start of the public hearing, those opposed to the legislation argued their case.
State Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said he found it “distressing” that a series of bills have been raised in the Public Health Committee over the past few years that, in his words, “are telling people their lives are not worth living.”
Candelora, and Dr. Brian Callister, a Nevada doctor who is recognized as an expert in end-of-life care issues, also noted that while the Connecticut State Medical Society has moved its position to “neutral, the American Medical Association (AMA) remains opposed.”
The AMA’s stated position is: “physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.”
Callister said doctors are notoriously bad at predicting how long patients have to live.
He added that legislation “is not a therapy or a solution to the difficult questions that are raised at the end of life.”
Cathy Ludlum, a disabled resident from Manchester, and co-founder of the disability lobbyist group Second Thoughts Connecticut, stressed in her remarks “that not everyone with a disability is permanently ill.”
She said many people who are asking for assisted suicide “are not in pain, but are are suffering from a loss of dignity, a loss of activities, a loss of autonomy.”
Ludlum said those symptoms can be dealt with through the health care system — not by putting those people to death.
Another disability advocate, Elaine Kolb of West Haven, spoke passionately against the legislation.
“Keep your poison pills,” Kolb said. “We’re not dead yet. And don’t make it easier for people to kill themselves.”
Public Health committee members stressed that they were careful in crafting the bill to avoid putting any undue pressure on a 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,” said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Westport Democrat who co-chairs the Public Health Committee.
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.”
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.
Aid in dying is legal in the District of Columbia and seven states: California, Montana, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.
Currently, 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.