Connecticut lawmakers will hear public testimony Friday on a bill giving terminally ill patients the option to take doctor-prescribed medication to end their own lives.
Public hearings on similar bills have elicited emotional testimony both for and against the proposal in prior legislative sessions. Despite repeated attempts by proponents, the bill has yet to pass out of the Public Health Committee to be considered by the wider legislature.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Westport Democrat who is co-chairman of the panel, said he believed the proposal will have more traction this year, in part because public thinking on the issue has evolved.
“Think of all the different things that we now take for granted — aspects of progress that took many years for opinions to change, for people to become better educated on the topic, before we actually changed the law. We’re at that point now,” Steinberg said Tuesday.
A Gallup poll conducted last year suggested that 74% of Americans support euthanasia – when a doctor administers medication to end a terminal patient’s life – and 61% supported doctor-assisted suicide – when a doctor helps a terminal patient in severe pain end their own life.
Eight other states including Vermont and Maine have passed similar laws. A court ruling in a ninth state, Montana, shields doctors from prosecution for assisting a terminally ill patient in ending their life.
The issue is deeply personal for advocates on both sides. Tollie Miller, a Bloomfield resident, said she expected Friday would be her fifth time testifying in support of the concept. The issue has been important to Miller since 2003, when she watched a close friend die painfully of bone cancer. Doctors and hospice professionals were not able to stay on top of her friend’s pain, Miller said.
“It was just horrible. It was like her last week – particularly the last 48 hours, she was in unremitting pain. It was really gruesome,” Miller said Tuesday. “No one should have to die like that. It’s just so inhumane and lacks compassion.”
Giving terminally ill people the option to end life on their own terms would go a long way toward easing the fear and anxiety that adds to the suffering of those nearing the end of their lives, Miller said.
The concept is often opposed by religious organizations like the Catholic Church and advocates for people with disabilities.
Cathy Ludlum, one of those advocates, said the measure sends a dangerous message to people with disabilities, many of whom live every day enduring some of the same challenges as people nearing death.
“No amount of safeguards can counter the social stigma of needing help with intimate care, of having to rely on others for support, of seeing caregivers tired and really wondering if the world would be better off without you,” Ludlum said Tuesday.
Chris Healy, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, worried that the concept encouraged a pervasive “culture of death” when the state should be focused on preserving life as its residents suffer through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re prepared to work with people about how we can make our society more compassionate for those who are facing both emotional and physical challenges, but having the state get involved in the suicide business is not the way to do it,” Healy told CTNewsJunkie last month.
Friday’s hearing on the bill will likely be an all-day event. On Tuesday, dozens of residents had already begun filing written testimony on the legislature’s website.
But for a few hours that morning, there was just one piece of testimony filed: four paragraphs from Norwalk resident William McCarthy, who described how his sister took her dog, an 18-year-old Bichon, to the vet to be put to sleep when he could no longer recover. The dog died in her lap, he said.
“My sister called it ‘humane.’ I would like that kind of ‘humane’ treatment extended to humans. I can safely assume that in the next 10-15 years, I will be faced with making a decision about my own fate unless death comes suddenly. I want to be the person who decides how much suffering I will have to endure when I am terminally ill,” McCarthy wrote. “Please allow me that choice.”