For a moment, it looked as if Connecticut would join 10 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing, under certain circumstances, a medical-aid-in-dying option for terminally ill adult residents.
Connecticut’s bill – the legislators’ 15th attempt since the mid-‘90s – was unique in that this session, supporters addressed each of opponents’ concerns and created some of the country’s strictest restrictions for participants.
But then opponents said they were concerned that subsequent litigation could weaken those restrictions, and legislators who wanted to pass the bill had to acknowledge – again – that there wasn’t the support to move forward.
Meanwhile, Connecticut residents near the end of their lives are left – in the worst possible time – with the option of soldiering through needless pain or seeking other relief. Some residents, such as Lynda Bluestein, of Bridgeport, have petitioned other states to allow them to take advantage of those states’ end-of-life options. Bluestein, a public health professional in her 70s, filed a federal lawsuit asking that Vermont relax their residents-only medical-aid-in-dying restrictions for her.
Oregon, which codified medical-aid-in-dying in 1997, relaxed its residents-only rule last year. The Vermont suit was settled by allowing an exception for Bluestein, and Vermont legislators crafted legislation that allows non-residents who meet certain restrictions the option. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has said he will sign the bill.
Meanwhile, can we acknowledge this is an inhumane way to treat a dying woman, to force her to look for options to the pain and anguish of late-stage fallopian tube cancer? The majority of state residents – 75% – would give expanded end-of-life options to people such as Bluestein. So why is this not law?
State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a medical doctor, said in a statement, “While I understand the arguments and opposition against this bill, I also recognize that our failure to pass this bill will prevent a number of Connecticut residents from having autonomy in their end-of-life choices. It is not lost on me that an increasing number of family members testify in support of the legislation each year because their loved ones lose their battles with illness.”
The debates – in public hearings and in committee – are frequently emotional. In one hearing, opponents of the bill talked about their dead grandmothers, and how they’d treasure having their loved ones alive longer. Who hasn’t wished for more time with a dying loved one, but with all due respect, if that extra time means putting that loved one through needless pain, what are we doing?
In a state judiciary committee earlier this month, state Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, after calling the legislation “horrible, horrible public policy,” said, “I believe in miracles.” Sen. Kissel is a decent man with an impressive track record for attention paid to housing and seniors, but you don’t make public policy based on a belief in miracles. Plenty of Connecticut residents haven’t gotten theirs. Instead, they’ve endured – as have their families — unnecessarily horrible deaths.
Tim Appleton, senior campaign director for Connecticut and Delaware for Compassion and Choices, an organization that focuses on end-of-life issues, said, “Whether Sen. Kissel or I believe in miracles is secondary to the very real desperation and suffering that terminally ill people will be sentenced to again because of the legislative inaction.”
The hardest part, says Appleton, is thinking of the people – those who are terminally ill and their loved ones – who have testified over the years. For some people seeking a medical-aid-in-dying option for themselves, time ran out. As a portrait display that hung in January at the State Capitol said, “They died waiting.”
“To ask people to do that every single year, it’s reliving trauma,” Appleton said. “To advocate for this legislation, someone is entering into this space where you relive the worst days of your life. We ask people, ‘Talk about the week that your brother begged you – begged you – to kill him.’ And all of this could be avoided if a reasonable expansion of freedom at the end of life were granted to Connecticut residents.”
On this issue, most opponents are one bad death away from joining the 75%. Is their opposition residual Puritanism? A fear of angering God? We have the benefit of medical marvels, but miracles are in short supply. So we start the process all over again next session, forcing terminally-ill people to make the trek to Hartford and spend their last moments giving testimony that reminds us that at the heart of this debate is autonomy and independence. This is their life and this is their body. It is not ours.