Only a small number of states have aid-in-dying or death-with-dignity laws that allow terminally ill patients to end their lives, and Connecticut supporters want that option, too. But opponents argue it could be dangerous, especially for people with disabilities.
Sharon Hines knows what’s in her future if she doesn’t beat her stage four lung cancer, and says she doesn’t want to live through it to the very end.
“Along with all the symptoms that come with an end stage lung cancer diagnosis, including struggling to breathe, pain issues—there’s so many things that can happen that I know that having medical aid in dying as an option actually provides me with, what I consider, a much more peaceful and gentle death,” she said.
Hines, 63, of Middletown, has used her own situation as well as her experience as an oncology nurse practitioner to join others who want Connecticut to pass aid-in-dying legislation, which would allow doctors prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill patients who want to end their lives.
Connecticut is one of 16 states that have introduced aid-in-dying or death-with-dignity legislation so far this year. Seven states and the District of Columbia currently have provisions in place.
Hines said she is doing all she can to fight her disease, including a clinical trial for new treatment, but the cancer continues to grow and spread in her brain.
If one day there are no more treatment options available, she said she would rather use aid-in-dying before experiencing the harshest symptoms of her disease.
Hines and her husband are prepared to move to a state that currently allows the practice to do that. The thought that they may have to leave their home in order to access aid-in-dying makes her angry, she said.
“I was born in Connecticut, I went to school in Connecticut, did all my college education here in Connecticut, married a Connecticut lifelong resident, we raised our son here, and that I can’t die here because I don’t have access to medical aid in dying is absolutely (un)just,” Hines said before a state public hearing Monday.
Legislators used Oregon as a guide in drafting the bill. Since its law went into effect in 1997, about 1,459 people have died from ingesting the medications. The majority of patients had cancer, state reports show.
Qualified patients in Connecticut would include residents who have six months or less to live because they are in the final stages of an “incurable and irreversible medical condition,” according to the bill.
Patients would have to be mentally competent to make an aid-in-dying request. They would also need at least two doctors and two witnesses to sign off on it.
Supporters say those provisions protect residents from outside interference or persuasion on their decision, but disability rights activist Cathy Ludlum doesn’t believe they’re the best safeguard.
“The last thing we need is for practitioners to have in the back of their minds, ‘I don’t know how you live the way you live. Maybe it’s time for aid in dying,’” Ludlum said at the public hearing.
Ludlum, co-founder of Second Thoughts Connecticut, a grassroots organization that views aid-in-dying as assisted suicide, is disabled and confined to a wheelchair with limited mobility.
She said she would qualify as an aid-in-dying candidate, but with treatment and ongoing care, she is able to live.
Others like her may disproportionately suffer misconduct and discrimination if this bill is passed, Ludlum said.
“Many of us with severe and obvious disabilities tend to be thought of, prematurely, by medical practitioners as having reached a final stage where death might be expected in the near future,” she said.
The public hearing on the bill drew supporters who spoke about watching loved ones die in pain, and opponents who questioned whether current long-term, palliative and hospice options were not enough to help dying patients and their families.
State legislators have tried and failed to pass similar bills in in previous years, but last week, supporters were more hopeful than in the past.
A big reason for that is because the Connecticut State Medical Society has decided to remain neutral on the topic. In the past, it was one of the leading opponents to aid-in-dying legislation. While the American Medical Association remains opposed, other state medical organizations have turned to a neutral stance.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, who is a sponsor of the bill, said that’s a sign of how views on aid-in-dying within the medical community are changing.
“There are probably even the majority of physicians who will not feel comfortable choosing to participate in this aid in dying process,” he said, “but there are more and more physicians who understand—consistent with the broader understanding of the Hippocratic Oath—that helping people maintain the quality of life they want and make their own informed medical decisions is consistent with their role as physicians.”