Deb Howland Murray and her son, Galen, embrace in the state Capitol after hanging a poster of husband and father David Murray alongside more than a dozen portraits hung by loved ones supporting the right to medical aid in dying. Mark Mirko / Connecticut Public

A proposal that would allow terminally ill adults in Connecticut to obtain a lethal dose of medication is again being weighed by lawmakers, with proponents making a strong push for passage despite the bill’s defeat more than a dozen times previously.

During the last two years, the measure made it farther than ever before, advancing out of the Public Health Committee but never receiving a vote in House or Senate. It failed to make it beyond the Judiciary Committee.

More than 250 people have written to legislators in support of and against this year’s bill, and a public hearing with 122 scheduled speakers began Monday morning and was expected to last for hours.

“For some patients, even the best hospice and palliative care will not replace their desire for bodily autonomy over how they die,” Kim Callinan, president and CEO of the Compassion and Choices Action Network, wrote to lawmakers. “Even the best pain and symptom management cannot control all suffering.”

“As a Roman Catholic, I am against any assistance in ending human life,” said Christine Healy of Collinsville. “This bill would take advantage of the elderly and those with disabilities. Pain management is available to those who are suffering. I consider assisted suicide a terrible solution. Let’s put our funding towards the elimination of cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.”

Sen. Saud Anwar, a South Windsor Democrat who is co-chair of the Public Health Committee, said this year’s proposal addresses many of the concerns raised by legislators, including increasing the minimum qualifying age from 18 to 21, requiring that a person live in Connecticut for at least a year, and mandating a mental health evaluation for the patient.

“This is a different bill than what people have seen,” he said. “This bill is far more restrictive than some of the others. We looked at all of the concerns people raised in the last few years and we made a list of those concerns. And then we incorporated them in this bill. This is arguably one of the most conservative bills in the country.”

Anwar favors the measure.

“I’m hopeful it will get passed by the Public Health Committee, and I’m very hopeful that even the Judiciary Committee will look at it [favorably],” he said. “Death is bipartisan. And the pain associated with it is, unfortunately, universal.”

The issue is especially emotional for residents who watched loved ones suffer prior to their death or who have a terminally ill family member or friend.

Maribeth Abrams said her friend Kim Hoffman died of cancer last year. Hoffman’s mother had also died of cancer, Abrams said, and Hoffman worried that, like her, she would die in pain.

“For the final two years of her life, Kim fought for medical aid in dying,” she said. “Would Kim have actually used the medication if it were available? I think that’s irrelevant. The point is that if Kim knew the prescription was available, then the fear and anxiety that permeated her final weeks of life could have been replaced with emotional comfort, knowing that if the pain became too torturous, she could end her life in a peaceful manner.”

Joseph Berrafati’s father, Gerald, died from Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 2019. He said he promised his father after his diagnosis that he would advocate for aid in dying.

“I will never forget when the neurologist told my dad that he had ALS,” Berrafati, of Wilton, wrote to legislators. “My dad asked [the] doctor if there was a pill cocktail he could be provided with to end this at the appropriate time. The neurologist laughed nervously and said unfortunately there was nothing he could do.

“My dad, as a physician, knew what the diagnosis meant. Fortunately, due to his age, the disease progressed quickly, but he lingered unnecessarily for the last few days, which were unbearable to experience for me and his family.”

Others sent written testimony opposing the bill, saying they worried about elderly people who cannot advocate for themselves and for people with disabilities. Some said the proposal did not include enough safeguards.

“I oppose [the measure] because of the danger of abuse by physicians and family members who might influence a terminally ill patient for their own purposes; not evil, but just to put them out of their suffering, as opposed to the patient’s,” Joan Baker wrote. “It is not always that difficult to convince a dying person that they would just be doing everyone a favor by dying, and parents especially feel this way because they don’t want to be a burden to their children. This is wrong and should not be allowed.”

Dr. Julie Volpe, a psychiatrist, said she’s against aid in dying because depression impairs a person’s judgment and reasoning.

“When faced with the diagnosis of a terminal illness, it is not surprising that many patients go through a period of depression,” said Volpe, of Berlin. “My most serious concern with the proposed bill in Connecticut is that it does not have enough safeguards to prevent patients who are suffering from depression from making a decision to end their life without being adequately assessed and treated for this illness.”

Under the bill, adults who have been residents of Connecticut for at least a year and who have a terminal illness with less than six months to live can submit two written requests for lethal medication at least 15 days apart. Each request must be given to an attending physician and witnessed by two people who are not relatives, beneficiaries of the patient’s estate or will, managers or owners of a health care facility where the patient resides or receives treatment, or the patient’s doctor. The witnesses must attest that the person appears to be of sound mind and acting voluntarily without coercion.

The patient can rescind the request “at any time and in any manner without regard to such patient’s mental state,” according to the measure. An attending physician must twice offer the patient the opportunity to revoke the request.

If a patient rescinds a request after medication is dispensed, “the attending physician shall inform the patient to safely dispose of the medication at a pharmacy that accepts and disposes of unused prescription drugs … or a municipal police station that collects and disposes of unwanted pharmaceuticals,” the bill states.

When a doctor is presented with the first request for lethal medication, he or she must determine that the patient has a terminal illness, is competent and has voluntarily requested it. The finding cannot be made on solely on the basis of age, disability or any specific illness.

The patient must be referred to a consulting physician to confirm the attending’s diagnosis and referred to counseling. Medication cannot be dispensed until the person providing counseling determines the patient is not suffering from a “psychiatric or psychological condition … that is causing impaired judgment,” according to the proposal.

At least 10 states and Washington, D.C., allow aid in dying. They include Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine, Montana and New Mexico.

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Jenna CarlessoHealth Reporter

Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.