Poster in They Died Waiting exhibit
Kim Hoffman passed away last year and was an advocate for aid-in-dying. Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Terminally ill patients in Connecticut would be allowed a legal method to end their own lives under legislation raised Wednesday by the Public Health Committee following opposing press conferences held by supporters and critics of the policy.

The committee voted 22-7 to raise the bill, called An Act Concerning Aid in Dying, during an afternoon meeting in the Legislative Office Building, hours after advocates on both sides of the issue staged press events to discuss the measure. 

The concept, which state lawmakers have considered for years, is meant to permit mentally competent but terminally ill patients with an estimated six months to live a legal option to end their own lives with doctor-prescribed medication rather than endure the pain and suffering associated with the late stages of their affliction.

According to Tim Appleton, senior campaign director of Compassion and Choices, similar policies have been adopted in 10 states and Washington D.C. 

The group unveiled Wednesday a series of portraits, which now line the concourse running between the legislative offices and the state Capitol. Each of them depicts a former advocate of the policy, who has since succumbed to their illnesses without the end-of-life options they had sought. 

One supporter, Jennifer Barahona of Fairfield, described the prolonged death of her mother, who suffered from ALS. After her mother lost her motor functions and the ability to speak, she communicated through blinking — one blink meant ‘yes’ and two blinks meant ‘no.’ It was through blinking that indicated she no longer wanted to ingest nourishment through her feeding tube, Barahona said.

“She died on Sept. 18, [2009] after 16 slow, painful days with literally zero ability to communicate her needs,” Barahona said. “I want you to imagine looking into your own beloved mother’s eyes while she pleads with you for over two weeks with little to offer but, ‘It will be over soon. It’s okay. Let go.’”

Barahona urged lawmakers to approve the bill and spare supporters from being “re-traumatized every single year.”

Opponents also held a press conference in the Legislative Office Building, where they called on legislators to reject the bill. Instead, they said the legislature should focus on improving hospice care.

Cathy Ludlum, a disability rights advocate with spinal muscular atrophy, said many of the concerns often cited in end-of-life debates stem from issues that some people with disabilities live with every day, like loss of autonomy or loss of dignity. 

“Supporters often say each person is just one bad death away from becoming a proponent. I say if you had to fight for preventative care, aggressive treatment and sometimes for your life in the health care system the way we do, you might well come to our side instead,” Ludlum said. “The push for assisted suicide is not about pain. It’s about loss. It’s about fear of disability.”

In previous years, the bill has been crafted to apply to patients with less than six months to live and who are considered “competent” and capable of making health care decisions. The previous versions of the legislation also would have required that two doctors attest to the patient’s diagnosis and competency to make the call.

Sen. Heather Somers, a Groton Republican opposed to the bill, said she would not support the legislation but would push to see this year’s bill include more safeguards than earlier versions. 

Sen. Saud Anwar, a South Windsor Democrat who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, told reporters that lawmakers were considering additional safeguards designed to ensure that patients who make the decision to participate are not being coerced to do so by someone else. 

Appleton said his organization was willing to consider additional protections. 

“We are willing and able at any time at any place to sit down and have good faith negotiations … to right balance the safeguards and access,” Appleton said.