Portraits of “aid-in-dying” supporters displayed in the Legislative Office Building in 2014 Credit: Hugh McQuaid file photo

Advocates of legislation to allow terminally ill patients to end their lives through medication will launch a renewed campaign next week aimed at shoring up support for a difficult and personal concept weighed by Connecticut lawmakers nearly every year. 

Compassion and Choices, an organization that lobbies for the policy often called aid-in-dying, plans to unveil on Wednesday a series of portraits to be displayed at the Legislative Office Building in the state Capitol complex where they may draw the attention of policymakers.

“The portrait and art installation will continue the conversation about the cost of continued inaction on medical aid-in-dying,” Patty McQueen, a spokesperson for the group, said this week.

It’s a conversation lawmakers in Connecticut have been having for over a decade through emotional public hearings on numerous iterations on the concept, all of which have failed at various points in the legislative process. 

Although the details of the bills have changed over the years, at its core the policy is meant to permit mentally competent but terminally ill patients a legal option to end their own lives with doctor-prescribed medication rather than endure ongoing pain and suffering. As of last year, nine other states had passed similar laws while another state, Montana, had shielded doctors from prosecution through a state Supreme Court decision. 

While supporters say the policy extends a measure of mercy and choice to suffering patients, opponents like the Catholic church and many disability advocates say it amounts to state-sanctioned suicide.

Proponents here in Connecticut point to incremental progress on pushing the bill over the finish line. For the past two years, supporters have passed the bill out of the Public Health Committee only to see it fail due to lack of support in the Judiciary Committee. 

This week, Sen. Saud Anwar, a supporter and South Windsor Democrat who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, said he expects to raise the bill again after conferring with the Judiciary Committee’s leadership. 

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Westport Democrat and proponent of the bill, said he hoped to see the bill pass through the legislature’s legal committee this year. 

“Each year we set our expectations a little higher,” Steinberg said. “There’s a certain amount of obligatory education we need to do for people who have not been familiar with the issue and there are a lot of new members in the legislature as well who may not be as close to this.”

This year Steinberg, who served several sessions as House chair of the Public Health Committee, passed the reins to Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield. In an interview last week, McCarthy Vahey said that she has felt conflicted about the issue but expected to help move the bill forward. 

“It’s certainly [an issue] that I’ve been torn on in the past,” McCarthy Vahey said. “But I recognize and respect that the people of the state — many, if not most — are asking for the ability to make that choice for themselves and that’s really important to me.”

In the past, the bill has prompted support and opposition from both sides of the political aisle. On Monday, Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, recalled feeling supportive of the policy early in his legislative career only to become generally opposed to it after speaking with disability advocates. 

Fishbein, who serves as a ranking Republican member on the Judiciary Committee, said previous versions of the bill left too many questions unanswered. Meanwhile, the concept could allow someone diagnosed with a terminal illness to be persuaded to end their own life when they could potentially live on for years, he said.  

People often live beyond doctors’ expectations, Fishbein said.

“There was a lawyer right down the street from my office who had gotten cancer and he was given six months to die. A decade later, he finally passed away,” Fishbein said. “He led a vigorous, active life for that decade.”

Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said positions on the issue often depend on a lawmaker’s personal experiences rather than their party affiliation.

“There was a point at which I was opposed to it and then I watched my mother die over four years and it changed everything,” he said. 

Winfield said that he and other supporters on the Judiciary Committee would be discussing the legislation and getting to know the positions of new members on the panel in the coming months. 

“Hopefully it’s a good thing and it bodes well for the movement of the bill. I think it’s about time for the bill to make some movement beyond the Judiciary Committee,” Winfield said. “I will be pushing to make it move out of the committee.”