In the end, discussions about the medical-aid-in-dying bill before Connecticut legislators may come down to the question of whose life is it, anyway?
Who gets to decide when a terminal illness has created a level of pain that is too much? With the way we currently die in Connecticut, that decision is made by the state, with the full-throated support of some deep-pocketed religious organizations.
Accordingly, supporters of the bill have added legislative guardrails they hope will address \concerns of some opponents who worry that if such a bill becomes law, ill people could be forced to die when they’d prefer to live.
It’s the slippery slope argument, that states and countries that legalize medical-aid-in-dying inevitably broaden their rules to open the door wider – and thus risk accidental or unintended deaths among members of vulnerable communities, though there are no examples – none – of such coercion.
Nevertheless, this year’s proposed bill has some of the most stringent protections in the country. In addition to restrictions already in the text, this session’s version requires that a person who seeks medical aid in dying must have a mandatory mental health evaluation; must be at least 21; must see their physician every 30 days, and must be a resident of Connecticut for at least one year.
“Nothing in this bill would compel anyone to do anything,” said Christopher Rossetti, in a Zoom press conference prior to Monday’s public hearing in front of the legislators’ public health committee. Rossetti is living with a rare form of eye cancer for which there is no cure.
Later, Rossetti was among more than 120 people who testified at a long public hearing on a day when the state was poised for a significant snowstorm. As he thanked people who testified, committee co-chair State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a doctor, encouraged everyone to travel home safely.
This legislation carries the same sense of urgency. Since the first such bill was introduced in the ‘90s, countless terminally ill adults have been denied the deaths they would have preferred, and their arguments are now being made by loved ones.
On Monday, people who testified included clergy, medical personnel, and people for whom, such as Rossetti, this bill is not theoretical. Some of the survivors’ testimony described their loved ones’ last few weeks and days in agonizing detail.
One woman, a school teacher whose mother died of ovarian cancer in 2019, assured the gathered people that she is not a heathen, because one strong opponent of this bill was and is the Roman Catholic Church. In this, church leadership is out of touch with church membership. According to a March 2021 survey from D.C.-based Greenberg Quinian Rosner, 69% of Roman Catholics, 70% of Protestants, and 89% of people who claimed no religious affiliation support the legislation.
Connecticut isn’t the only state considering end-of-life issues. Massachusetts legislators are considering a similar bill this year. Vermont legislators are considering lifting the residency rule on their medical-aid-in-dying law, which has been in place since 2013.
Connecticut supporters run the gamut, including people whose names are known to the public strictly because of their advocacy around end-of-life issues. And they include better-known people such as James Naughton, a Connecticut native and award-winning actor whose wife, Pamela, to whom he was married for 46 years, died of pancreatic cancer in 2013. In the press conference prior to the public hearing, Naughton again described the wrenching last months of his wife’s life.
“I am beginning,” said Naughton, “to get upset with people who don’t seem to understand or don’t seem to care to find a way to keep this law from helping those few of us who do not go gentle into the good night.” After witnessing his wife’s death, he said, there is “nothing you wouldn’t do to try to end her suffering.”
Opponents at the public hearing tended to share personal stories, too, often of family members who soldiered on despite debilitating illnesses. The people who testified spoke of the joy they felt at having extra time with their loved ones, but with all due respect for their loss, the people most affected by the lack of this option are gone and unable to share their own stories. If you’ve ever sat at a deathbed, it’s hard to imagine not allowing the person at the center of the trauma to have a say in their own exit.
We are not a theocracy, and this bill carries more than sufficient protections for all. Let this be the year.