Do you know what’s been missing from the difficult discussions around Connecticut’s medical-aid-in-dying bill?
You can start a Twitter war over the use of the word “woke,” but Connecticut state legislators are literally discussing life and death, yet public conversation has remained respectful. At a long and emotional public hearing in February, and at last week’s committee meeting when members voted to advance the bill, the tone remained considerate and earnest.
At last week’s meeting, Rep. Mary Welander, D-Derby, choked up talking about her mother’s death, and she stopped and said quietly, “I can’t do this.” Committee co-chair Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Bridgeport, said to her, equally quietly, “You can do this. You are doing it.”
Welander then talked about telling her children, after their ill grandmother made the decision not to rely on machines to extend her life, that their grandmother was not afraid, and she was not alone.
Committee members who spoke against the bill were careful to acknowledge the painful family stories that are so much a part of this legislation.
Much of the credit for that decorum goes to the public health committee co-chairs, McCarthy Vahey, a certified suicide prevention trainer, and Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a critical care doctor.
Roughly 75% of state residents support medical-aid-in-dying. By comparison, a 2020 Medscape survey found support among just 55% of medical doctors such as Anwar.
Anwar said he was once firmly in the “no” category. Decades of state legislators have considered versions of this bill, and as a critical care doctor, Anwar said he thought support of this end-of-life option ran counter to his medical training.
“The rationale for that is as humans, we are hard-wired to protect life,” said Anwar. “And as physicians, you spend the majority of your adult life doing whatever you can to improve the quantity and quality of life.”
Some of Anwar’s patients have end-stage lung diseases, lung cancers, and other diseases that can only promise “poor outcomes,” or death. He has seen, he said, some ugly deaths.
But then Anwar said he treated a terminally ill patient who made a difficult request, that the doctor help the patient die faster. What followed was an hours-long conversation as the patient discussed his concerns for himself, but mostly for his family and what effect his long death would have on them financially and emotionally, Anwar said. The doctor began to research medical-aid-in-dying, and — after he was elected to the state senate — listening to testimony from patients and family members whose end-of-life decisions consumed them, he said.
Eventually, the doctor trained to extend life said he began to see that for some people, quality of life could be as or more important than quantity.
“As legislators, we all have life experiences, we all have faith-based understanding if we choose to, we all have values,” Anwar said “The way I see this is that this is for us to decide how we want to live our lives, not to decide how others should live their lives.
“With that in mind, I feel that it’s important to give people the choice. People need to know what other options they have, they need to know that if they get to the point where their suffering is out of control, then they have other options, too. We should probably not stand in their way.”
This year’s bill carries some of the nation’s strictest guard rails for medical aid-in-dying, and some of those safeguards were added at the request of legislators who’d opposed the bill in the past.
The bill goes to the Senate, where it most likely will be moved to the judiciary committee, which voted last year’s version down after a unique legislative move that split the committee.
But that was last year. We grow closer to passing this important legislation. We’d do well to take a page from Dr. Anwar’s book and listen to the stories.