COVID-19 raised in latest physician-assisted suicide debate

Some proponents of the latest effort in Connecticut to allow physicians to prescribe medication to terminally ill patients seeking to end their lives said Friday the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for such a law.

Opponents of the legislation, however, argued at a virtual hearing at the state Legislature that it’s the absolute wrong time to bring up the bill again.

“Why would the Connecticut legislature be holding a hearing and trying to pass assisted suicide during a year like this when so many of our seniors have already died and are in a mentally vulnerable state of mind,” asked Anthony Barca of Norwalk, who submitted written testimony to the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee.

Tina Balmer of Manchester wrote: “This is NO time to make suicide more socially acceptable,” noting the “mental stress” the pandemic and lockdowns have taken on the state’s children and teenagers.

Dr. Jeff Gardere of Weston, a clinical psychologist and ordained minister, said he believes the pandemic, which has been blamed for more than 7,600 deaths in Connecticut, has proven the need for state legislators to finally pass the “Aid in Dying” bill after about eight years of consideration.

Having such a law on the books might not have helped people dying from COVID-19 given the rapid progression of the disease in some cases, but the conditions under which those people died highlight the importance of providing people with the option of medical assistance at the end of life, Gardere said.

“Many of these patients died in the hospital, isolated from their loved ones,” he said. “And this is perhaps the kind of death we fear the most and a stark reminder that we should not be lulled into the fallacy of a false sense of security, that the end of life period only comes to those in old age or who have been chronically ill.”

This year’s bill, which is similar to previous proposals and modeled after an Oregon law, would take effect on Oct. 1, 2021. It would apply to residents 18 years and older who’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months or less to live, are mentally capable of making their own health care decisions and able to self-administer the medication.

The bill requires the patient to make two verbal requests and one written to their attending physician, seeking the medication. Also, two physicians must confirm the person is terminally ill, has six months left to live, is mentally competent and is not being coerced. The physicians must inform patients about all end-of-life options.

Despite such provisions, opponents voiced concerns about the ramifications of the legislation, arguing it could change the nature of medicine in Connecticut.

“A medical system that kills is no longer recognizable as healing and caring,” warned Charlie Camosy, a bioethics professor in the theology department of Fordham University in New York.

Stephen Mendelsohn, a leader of Second Thoughts Connecticut, a coalition of people with disabilities that has opposed physician-assisted suicide legislation for years, reiterated the group’s long-standing concern that such a law could ultimately be extended to people with non-terminal disabilities.

“Many assume that disability is a fate worse than death,” he said. “So we admire people with a disability who want to die and we shake our collective heads in confusion when they want to live.”

Connecticut-based actor and writer Michael Tucker, known for his role on the TV show “L.A. Law,” urged lawmakers to pass the bill. He told the story of a friend who was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer and was able to “create a beautiful death” in California, where physicians are allowed to help terminally ill patients to die.

He said his friend combed through 60 years of photographs during the final weeks of his life, putting together a slideshow for his family to watch as they gathered by his bedside.

“They laughed, they danced, they hugged, they cried. It was like life,” Tucker said. “And then, with everyone gathered, he took his aid-in-dying medication and peacefully died.”

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chairman of the Public Health Committee, said he’s optimistic the bill might finally be voted out of the committee for the first time, saying “our prospects are as good as it has ever been.”