By James L. Young, Jr., Esq.
Scenario. You have an incurable and irreversible medical condition that your physician has said is expected to lead to your death within six months. You are not suffering from depression or some other condition that impairs your judgment. You may or may not be experiencing unmanageable pain, or loss of mental or physical capacities. You may have a loving family, and have lived a good and enriching life. You are deeply troubled about what lies ahead of you, and want to have the ability to decide for yourself when enough is enough, and when and how to leave this earth.
Question. Do you think you should have the right to obtain from a willing physician a prescription that would give you the means to accelerate the end of your life, to a time of your choosing? (As things stand now, in Connecticut (unlike in Oregon, Washington and Vermont, among some other states), you do not have that right.)
A bill introduced in the Connecticut legislature in the spring of 2013 (House Bill 6645 An Act Concerning Compassionate Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Patients – see copy attached) would have given a narrowly defined class of competent, terminally ill persons, the right to obtain a prescription (to be self-administered) from a willing physician, to accelerate the end of their lives. The legislation included many safeguards to prevent persons who did not have the capacity to make such a decision, or whose judgment was impaired due to depression or other factors, from obtaining such a prescription.
No person or physician would be obligated to participate in this process.
The legislation was largely modeled upon a statute that has existed in the State of Oregon since 1997. A copy of that statute can be found at Oregon Revised Statutes 127.800, known as the Oregon Death With Dignity Act. The Oregon law has been the subject of numerous and continuing studies, and there is a lot of information about the law and how it has worked that is available for review. A review of some of that material (there is a great deal of it), could reasonably lead one to conclude that the Oregon Law has not led to abuses, and that it has provided a great benefit to the citizens of Oregonwho find themselves caught in the extreme and unfortunate circumstances defined in the law.
Those who support the rights that would have been provided under House Bill 6645 owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Representative Betsy Ritter, who eloquently testified in favor of this legislation in the House on the day of the Hearing.
I attended the public hearing on the legislation in 2013, and it seemed to enjoy considerable support in the Committee, although some legislators were clearly opposed. The Hearing was held on the last day public testimony could be given, and the bill was withdrawn from consideration prior to any vote being taken, as I understand it, with the intent of introducing it again in the next session. I gather it is not uncommon for legislation to be presented to the legislature a number of times, before finally being accepted.
Attached to this memo is a helpful and informative memo prepared by the Office of Legislative Research for the Connecticut legislature, dated November 8, 2012, which looks into the state of the law in this area.
The powerful idea behind this legislation has been gaining acceptance across the country in the last few years. The State of Washington has a law similar to Oregon’s. Vermont recently adopted a similar piece of legislation It seems that over time the concept of compassionate aid in dying will continue to gain ground and become law in many if not all States through ballot measures or legislation, or as a result of legal action.
I certainly am not alone in having known persons suffering from a terminal illness, who are sometimes in pain so great that it cannot be abated (or can be so only through medications which have severe and unacceptable side effects), and who live in fear of losing the ability to take care of themselves, maintain any independence, enjoy life, and retain a sense of personal dignity. Some of these persons feel strongly about not spending their final weeks or months on this earth in a nursing home or hospital, or even home, if that involves the loss of their mental faculties, or of control over their bodies. To some, such a fate is unacceptable, and looms like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story, or horror movie.
If you would like to learn more about these matters, one resource is the Compassion and Choices Connecticut organization, and the national organization of which the Connecticut entity is a part. If you google the organization, you will find a wealth of information about it, and how to learn more about these matters. You will find the contact information for the organization below.
The Oregon experience shows that a small number of persons obtain the prescription there each year, and of that number, some significant percentage do not use the medication, but apparently take solace from knowing they have it at hand, if at some point they find their lot more than they can bear, and wish to depart this world at a time of their choosing, supported by their loved ones, and care givers.
Some would find taking any such prescription a violation of their religious or spiritual beliefs, and would surely not want to do so. That should be their choice.
However, many others (a majority based on extensive polling that has been done), say they want to have this option available to them, and see this as a natural part of their right to determine for themselves when to say enough is enough under the circumstances defined in the proposed law.
Why should such a right not be recognized in Connecticut? If a competent adult, whose ability to make a decision regarding these matters is not compromised by depression or other factors, who has been diagnosed as having a terminal illness that will kill them within six months in the estimation of their physician, says “I don’t want to suffer through these final months, and bring my loved ones with me on such a death watch. I want to be able to decide when the time is right, and when enough is enough, for myself.”
Why should such a person not be allowed to make that decision, and self administer a prescription obtained from their physician, to accelerate the end of their life?