Group brings national right-to-die movement to state legislature

Leaders of a national right-to-die lobbying group came to Connecticut Tuesday to urge lawmakers to approve a bill to legalize assisted suicide for patients with a terminal illness.

During a news conference in the Capitol complex, Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, and local supporters, said similar laws have passed in Oregon, Washington and Montana, and that it’s time for Connecticut to give mentally competent, terminally ill patients the option to make that choice.

Connecticut’s residents should enjoy freedom both in how to live and, when their time comes, how to die,” Lee said.

The controversial bill was recently raised by the legislature’s Public Health Committee and will be aired at a public hearing this session. If approved, Connecticut would be the first state to approve the law legislatively. The other three states have approved the measure through the courts or ballot box.

right to die

State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, with Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee to her left, speaks at Tuesday’s news conference.

The language of the Connecticut bill has not yet been drafted, but it’s expected to be modeled on aid-in-dying laws in Oregon and Washington.

The Oregon law allows a terminally ill person with a diagnosis of less than six months to live to get a prescription that can be self-administered. The person must be determined to be psychologically competent by two doctors.

Since the law was passed 15 years ago in Oregon, 673 people have committed suicide through the law. Thousands of others have obtained the prescription but never actually used it, using it as a sort of parachute or security blanket to alleviate the fear and anxiety of pain, Lee said. In Washington, fewer than 100 have committed suicide though the law, she said.

Asked why the group was targeting Connecticut now, Lee said the right-to-die issue is part of national movement, even an international movement.

“The deep yearning for increasing autonomy for patients themselves to have a voice now is reaching a tipping point across the world. I think the baby-boomer generation has something to do with that — and the removal of the taboo about talking about end of life desires and wishes. It used to be you couldn’t talk about these issues,” she said.

The idea is not new to Connecticut. A similar bill was discussed as recently as 2009, but it never made it out of committee, said state Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, a proponent and former chairwoman of the Public Health Committee. Three years ago, two Fairfield County doctors who support aid-in-dying law, sued the state. But the judge dismissed the case, saying it was a legislative matter.

One of the doctors, Gary Blick, was among those who spoke at the news conference. He said he would like to be able to give patients who are suffering through long and lingering deaths a way out to find some peace. But a 1969 state law makes writing such a prescription a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

“This is all about patient choice and death with dignity,” Blick said.

During the news conference, state Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, R-Glastonbury, a physician, spoke in favor of the bill.

“Intractable pain and suffering, unfortunately, is the harsh reality for some terminally ill patients,” Srinivasan said. “Many of us have had the unfortunate experience of watching a relative, a close friend, go through this pain and suffering.”

“It is an option that is available to these patients after all due diligence is done. And many, many times, this option is not exercised at all. So the option is there for the patient if it is needed,” he said.

He urged legislators to be extremely careful and cautious as they draft the legislation. “We need to get it right,” he said.

The bill also has many critics, including advocates for the disabled who fear the legislation is a slippery slope for those who can’t advocate well for themselves.

“People with disabilities are already devalued in our society,” said Cathy Ludlum, a leader of the group Second Thoughts Connecticut. “There are subtle forces that make it less likely for us to survive to begin with. Any of us with severe disabilities who have had a close call medically can tell you how fine the line is. When does it stop being a choice?”

“I don’t think that offering a way out that’s so permanent is the way to deal with difficulties in life,” she said.

She also pointed out that the legislation dos not require anyone to witness the death.

“What if someone changed his mind?” she asked.