Connecticut lawmakers heard a procession of emotionally bruising testimony Wednesday during this year’s public hearing on legislation that would give terminally ill patients a legal option to end their own lives with doctor-prescribed medication.
The concept, alternatively called aid-in-dying and assisted suicide, has been raised in some form by state legislators more than a dozen times but has stalled before seeing a vote in either chamber.
During a press conference before Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Westport Democrat who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, told reporters he was confident the bill would finally be put to a vote during this year’s short legislative session.
But first, Steinberg and other members of the committee oversaw a seemingly annual hearing of tragic stories. Opponents, many of them living with difficult disabilities, told lawmakers the bill green-lights ending one’s own life at a time when many are struggling to persevere through the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the issue was especially raw for many supporters due to the recent death of Kim Hoffman, one of Connecticut’s most vocal advocates for the legislation. Hoffman died in January after a more than eight year struggle with terminal cancer. Before the hearing, Hoffman’s spouse, Joy Cipollo, said her wife was only 59 and lingered at the end of her life.
“The pain and suffering she endured still keeps me up at night and hospice could only do so much,” Cipollo said. “She was uncomfortable and she was in pain. It’s not how she wanted to die. She fought so hard for this bill so she could go on her terms.”
Opponents too said the issue felt more dire this year. Cathy Ludlum, an advocate with spinal muscular atrophy, told lawmakers many people with disabilities were struggling to hang on as the direct care workers they rely upon have left the field throughout the pandemic. Ludlum said the bill sent the wrong message at the wrong time.
“I ask you not to pass this legislation because a lot of people in despair are going to feel that this a go-ahead to harm themselves either through the bill, through the legislation program or not,” Ludlum said.
The bill is designed to apply to patients with less than six months to live and who are considered “competent” and capable of making health care decisions. It requires two doctors attest to the patient’s diagnosis and competency to make the call.
However, opponents worry eligible people will be pressured to make the choice. One such resident, Elaine Kolb, shouted at lawmakers on the committee, saying the panel should increase access to needed services rather than consider the bill again. She said elderly and disabled people would feel coerced to consider ending their lives if it were approved as an option.
“The so-called compassionate choice, which is contempt and coercion for some of us,” Kolb said. “I get the right to say so and other disabled people have the right to say so and non-disabled — not-yet disabled people do not get to say what is oppressive and dangerous and threatening to us.”
Following the comments, Steinberg told Kolb it was not the committee’s intent to hinder the disabled community with the bill. She told him it did not matter what his intention was.
The hearing also drew harrowing stories from other legislators, who signed up to testify on the bill. Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said he wished the option had been available to his mother near the end of her life. Winfield struggled through tears to describe the pain his mother endured.
“At the end of her life, this woman, who was probably the strongest person I know, begged to die. But she couldn’t and so she died on an operating table,” Winfield said.
Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, told the committee she was thankful the option was not available to elderly people in nursing homes during the pandemic. She worried about how it may have impacted her 95-year-old father.
“If he chose through despair and depression to take his own life, because that’s what it is, with no access to a family member, that would have been a tragedy,” Cheeseman said.
Others said the issue was a matter of choice and personal freedom. Kim Hoffman’s father, Herb Hoffman, told the committee he had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He had since relocated to California, a state with a similar law on the books. Hoffman said he had gone through the necessary process to obtain medication to end his own life but had yet to make a final decision. He told lawmakers the decision should be entirely up to him.
“I want my freedom to end my life when and how I choose,” Herb Hoffman said. “Do not let your values take away my choice. I will not impinge on your values or your freedom. Do not impinge on my freedom. Kim said it, ‘I’d love for my end to be powerful and pain free.’ As would I.”
More than 100 people signed up to speak during the hearing, which was ongoing as of early afternoon Wednesday.