March 01. 2015
You have to give the group Compassion & Choices high marks for persistence. Despite little progress, for the third straight legislative session they are back in Connecticut, asking the General Assembly to pass a law that would allow doctors to prescribe medications that terminally ill patients could use to commit suicide.
I know the group doesn’t like that ugly word and you won’t find it in any of Compassion & Choices press releases or guest commentaries. Instead there are references to “aid in dying,” “death with dignity” and “end-of-life choices.”
But what they are talking about is the state sanctioning suicide: “The act of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally.”
The assisted suicide bills did not get to the floor for a vote in 2013 or 2014, but as I wrote a year ago, the group sees Connecticut as a progressive state that can eventually be persuaded to see the issue as a matter of individual choice – the choice in the organization’s words to “have the best death possible.”
It is an issue that generates strong and emotional opinions on both sides. Compassion & Choices garnered much media attention last year, and certainly won some converts, with the moving story of 29-year-old Californian Brittany Maynard, who utilized the Oregon law to take her life before her brain cancer became severely debilitating.
This is a movement more imposed on Connecticut than generated from the grassroots. C&C has also launched campaigns in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado and California. Vermont and Washington, as well as Oregon, already allow doctor-assisted suicide in cases of terminal illness.
As proposed in Connecticut, a person with a few months to live, and who is becoming increasingly incapacitated and dependent on others and wants to avoid suffering, can obtain medication to commit suicide at a time of his or her choosing. In the parlance of the movement, they can choose to “die with dignity.”
I remain convinced such a law is not needed and would take society down a troubling ethical path.
What message does it send to and about severely disabled people to contend it is undignified to need the assistance of others? When government gives the OK through law that expediting death can be the best option, it can apply subtle pressure on the dying – who may worry they are a financial and emotional burden on family – to “just get it over with.”
Connecticut Hospice opposes the legislation. With each passing year palliative care improves, including the effective use of pain medication. Pain can be effectively mitigated short of ending it through intentional and premature death.
The Connecticut State Medical Society also opposes a law that would switch the role of doctors from healers to legal co-conspirators in the taking of lives.
As I also wrote a year ago, people have the choice to refuse extraordinary measures to keep them alive. That is where society, through its laws, should draw the line. (These views are my own. The Day has not taken an editorial stand.)
Politically, it appears the movement’s hand has been weakened. One of its strongest proponents the past two years was state Rep. Betsy Ritter, a Democrat representing the 38th District of Waterford and Montville, who rose to the rank of deputy speaker. She surrendered that seat, however, to run for state Senate in the 20th District last November, losing to Republican Paul Formica.
Elected to replace Ritter was Republican Kathleen M. McCarty, who says she is leaning against the bill, though willing to listen to the arguments in favor. A member of the Public Health Committee, McCarty said she’d rather see the emphasis place on improved palliative care.
Ritter, meanwhile, was appointed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to be the commissioner of the Department on Aging.
Even if the legislation again fails, there is no limit on how often a bill can be introduced. This debate may be renewed for many legislative sessions to come.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.