For the third time in as many years, the legislature’s Public Health Committee on Friday advanced a bill that would give terminally-ill adults an option to end their own lives with doctor-prescribed medication.
The proposal, called “Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Patients,” would apply to Connecticut residents at least 21 years-old whose diagnosis puts their life expectancy at six months or less.
The bill includes more restrictions than earlier iterations. Among other things, it requires that patients seeking to participate make two requests to their doctors on days spaced at least 15 days apart. The legislation also requires the requests to be witnessed by at least two non-relative people willing to vouch for the patient’s state of mind and attest that the patient was not being coerced.
The committee voted 22-9 to pass the proposal during an afternoon meeting. Although the panel’s action keeps the bill in play as committees approach deadlines to advance their own proposals, it will soon be referred to the Judiciary Committee, where earlier versions have stalled in the previous two sessions.
One by one, members of the Public Health Committee took the opportunity during Friday’s meeting to articulate varied and nuanced positions on the always-difficult concept. While they ranged from full-throated support to staunch opposition, several members described feeling torn on the matter.
Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, said she arrived on the committee 12 years ago as “a hard ‘no,’” against the proposal. Since then, Cook said she had lost her father, her in-laws, and her step mother, who died as a result of lung cancer.
“She was the most God-fearing woman I ever met and she laid on the bed in the hospital and begged for us to end her life,” Cook said.
“That was the day that I realized that this bill is not about me, that this decision that we make around this table is not really about any one of us. It is about somebody else’s choice,” she said. “I might not ever choose to use the option that we might be voting out today but I don’t think it’s my place to tell somebody that they can’t.
Cook later voted for the bill. On the other hand, Rep. Christie Carpino, R-Cromwell, did not, despite describing similar feelings about patient choice.
“I believe the final decision should be with the patient. That’s where I think perhaps my place on the spectrum is different from others,” Carpino said. “But there are a number of concerns I have with this language… I don’t think today is the time or place to go through every one of my concerns on this bill. But I’m not there yet and I truly respect the individuals who think that this is enough to make them feel comfortable and I don’t challenge them. I just disagree with them. But for me, I’m not there yet.”
Opponents of the bill said they would support creating a task force in order to look at the issue.
Rep. Nicole Klarides-Ditra, R-Derby, said the Connecticut Medical Society has taken a neutral stance and she would like them to weigh in.
“I do struggle also with this not having a medical professional with the person when they take these meds,” Klarides-Ditra said.
Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, agreed. She said there’s disagreement in the medical community where their goal is to “do no harm.”
“I think it’s such an important issue they should look at it,” Somers said.
She added that meeting with a counselor for one hour isn’t sufficient.
“I think the advocates we heard in support of legalizing assisted suicide are doing it because they think it eases suffering,” Somers said. “We should ease suffering but we should not end life.”
Proponents shared stories about watching loved ones die.
Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon, said pancreatic cancer runs in her family and she has sat through many deaths knowing that was not the way her loved ones wanted to go.
“I’m not sure I’ve witnessed a more brutal death other than the death of my good friend Tracy Gamer Fanning, who used to testify in support of this bill but is no longer here to do so,” Kavros DeGraw said.
She said her daughter was recently at the bedside of a family member and thought she supported the concept of aid-in-dying, but had never sat with someone as they lay dying.
“She was there for the death rattle, she was there for the moaning, she was there for what I would call a death mask and she said ‘I more firmly believe it now than I ever have’,” Kavros DeGraw said. “Not everyone will have that experience and come out on the other side believing this should be a choice for someone.”
However, Kavros DeGraw said lawmakers talk a lot about giving someone the freedom to choose and the dignity for the people we serve.
“I respect everyone who is a yes, I respect everyone who is a no and everyone who is a maybe,” she said. But she hoped they can look in the eye those supporters who testify year-after-year and assure them that this is the year they get it done.