Capitol Connection: Connecticut Debates Aid in Dying

March 12, 2014

One of the most emotionally charged issues up for discussion at the Capitol this year is “aid in dying” or “assisted suicide” legislation. There is currently a bill, under consideration by the Public Health Committee, which seeks to legalize this in Connecticut. The following is not an opinion piece, and does not promote one side over the other. Instead, I want to take a moment to explain the legal implications of the issue, and layout the facts and figures we will hear about over the next few months.

This year the legislature will consider Raised House Bill No. 5326 An Act Concerning Compassionate Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Patients. The bill, if passed into law, would allow a physician to prescribe medication that a terminally ill person could self-administer to bring about his or her death. The person would need to be deemed mentally competent and request the prescription from their doctor.

The bill before the Public Health Committee also details requirements related to requests for aid in dying medication and steps patients and physicians must take before getting or giving a prescription. For example, the bill says an individual must submit two written requests for such medication and two witnesses must sign each request. The second request cannot be submitted earlier than 15 days after the first request. Also, the illness and “terminal” diagnosis must be confirmed by another doctor and physicians must inform patients of all other treatment and care options, according to the bill.

Last year, a similar bill was raised in Connecticut, but did not come up for a vote before the end of session.

This year, there are groups advocating in support of this bill, as well as those who strongly oppose it. A public hearing is scheduled for Monday, March 17, and the public has already been very vocal. Groups such as Compassion and Choices have spoken in strong support of aid in dying legislation. In opposition to the proposed bill, groups including the Connecticut State Medical Society, the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference and the Family Institute of Connecticut are also outspoken.

Currently, aid in dying is legal in three states: Oregon, Washington and Vermont. In New Mexico, a court recently ruled that patients have a constitutional right to aid in dying if they are both competent and terminally ill.

A poll released by Quinnipiac University last week showed that a majority of people in Connecticut support aid in dying. When asked, “Do you support or oppose allowing doctors to legally prescribe lethal drugs to help terminally ill patients end their own lives?” 61 percent of people said they support this. However, only 33 percent said they would ask a doctor to help end their own lives if they were terminally ill. If they were terminally ill and in pain, 45 percent said they would seek medical help to end their lives.

The whole situation is very controversial and sensitive for many people. Even the name of the concept is debated. Some say “death with dignity,” others say “physician-assisted suicide,” and “aid in dying” is the language used in the proposed bill. Each phrasing conjures different emotions and associations.

As the session continues, so will the public debate around this concept. Personal values and questions of choice fuel the discussion, and make this an incredibly difficult issue to pin down. I myself will not jump to any decisions regarding this legislation until the final bill is placed in front of me. Over the next few months, the bill will change and develop as legislators tweak the proposed legislation. During this process, I encourage you to voice your own opinions on aid in dying, and let your legislators know where you stand. This is a big decision, and everyone should have a voice in the debate.