Public Health Committee co-chairs Sen. Saud Anwar and Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

State legislators heard emotional public feedback Monday on a recurring proposal that would see Connecticut join 10 other states which allow terminally-ill patients to end their own lives with the assistance of a doctor. 

The bill, referred to as “aid-in-dying” by supporters and “assisted suicide” by its detractors has come before the Connecticut legislature more than a dozen times over the years. This year’s legislation would apply to adults who are expected to die from their illness within six months and who are at least 21 years-old.

Although the concept has yet to be raised for a vote in either chamber, the Public Health Committee has vetted each bill through sometimes-agonizing public hearings marked by recollections of a loved one’s end-of-life suffering or tales of navigating the health care system with disabilities. 

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

James Naughton, an actor from Westport, described for the committee the prolonged death of his late wife. Naughton said it was fifth time telling Connecticut lawmakers about her painful struggle with pancreatic cancer.

“She had become emaciated, she had lost weight. She was dependent on a pain pump, an oxygen tank, a bile duct drain because she had a blockage in a bile duct,” Naughton said. “Finally, after four years, one morning she looked at me and said, ‘Jimmy, I don’t want to wake up anymore.’ … When they say that to you, let me tell you there is nothing that you wouldn’t do to try to help them.”

James Naughton, an actor from Westport, testifies remotely

Tyrone Biniarz told a similar story involving his late brother, Cliff, who he said died two years ago of a rare cancer while awaiting passage of the bill. 

“As Cliff’s end drew near, he had choices about how to die,” Biniarz said. “He could have stock-plied drugs and self-administered a lethal overdose. I know he planned to end his life, but he developed a serious infection, was hospitalized and placed in a nursing home. Once in those settings, he lost the ability to decide how to end his life on his terms.”

Opponents of the proposal including disability rights advocates and religious groups argue that the policy amounts to a state endorsement of suicide and say any safeguards crafted by lawmakers to prevent abuse of the policy, could be chipped away or removed over time. 

Cathy Ludlum, a disability rights advocate from Manchester Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Cathy Ludlum, an opponent from Manchester who has spinal muscular atrophy, told lawmakers that advocates living with disabilities were informed by years of experience fighting for adequate medical care. 

“We are motivated by a strong sense of social justice combined with personal experience of what it’s like to be devalued by the medical system,” Ludlum said. “Drafters of S.B. 1076 are proud of their supposed safeguards, but as others have said and will say again, these will not stop people from dying for the wrong reasons.”

Like all of this year’s public hearings, Monday’s proceedings were conducted both remotely through video conferencing and in-person where committee members were gathered in Hartford’s Legislative Office Building. More than 120 people signed up to speak about the bill.

Opponents of the proposal made up much of the morning crowd gathered in the hearing room. Many wore signs, which hung from their necks on strings. They read “No Assisted Suicide” or “Vote No on SB 1076.”

During his testimony, Peter Wolfgang, an opponent of the bill and president of the Family Institute of Connecticut, provoked a light rebuke from the committee’s co-chairman, Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor. At times, supporters of the bill have displayed photos of lost loved ones who died waiting for the bill to pass. Wolfgang referred to the photos as “props.” Anwar called the remark “insensitive.”

“It’s important to be passionate but when you cross the limit for somebody’s pain and you use the term ‘props,’ it’s not fair,” Anwar said. 

“I understand that they have their sincere beliefs,” Wolfgang responded. “We have our sincere beliefs too and we do have questions about the authenticity of this cause, what agendas really motivate this cause and so that passion does come out sometimes.”

Anwar, a pulmonologist in the midst of his first session co-chairing the committee, began the hearing by stating that this year’s bill would be different from its predecessors. It raises the qualifying age from 18 to 21 and includes new safeguards like a requirement that patients live in Connecticut for at least a year in order to qualify and follow up with a doctor at least every 30 days after lethal medication is prescribed.

Opponents of the bill display signs behind Rep. Holly Cheeseman Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Other new guard rails include mandatory mental health evaluations for participating patients and penalties that include felony charges for abuses of the law like pressuring a patient to participate, prescribing the medication in bad faith, or selling the lethal medication to someone else.

Anwar said those changes were likely to displease advocates on both sides– a mark of compromise.

“I imagine both sides of this debate will be unhappy today and this will be because some will say that these guardrails have become barriers and others will say that law does not go far enough to protect the vulnerable,” Anwar said. 

However, while the changes could help advance the bill through the Public Health Committee, that panel’s stamp of approval would not ensure final passage. The bill has advanced through the Public Health Committee for the last two sessions. Both times, it stalled in the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, where leaders said it lacked adequate support. 

Last month, Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who supports the bill and co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he would work to build enough support for the proposal to move it out of his committee.