Proponents of aid-in-dying legislation planning strong push this session
More than eight years into her cancer diagnosis, the pain in Kim Hoffman’s body had become constant.
“I can’t remember the last day that I did not experience pain,” Hoffman, 59, of Glastonbury, said in a recent interview. “It has been at least two months of daily, very often intense, sharp, biting pain.
“I’ve awoken from sleep in pain every night, multiple times. Three o’clock in the morning is a standing hour for me – three o’clock and four o’clock in the morning I can always count on waking up in discomfort or pain.”
In 2013, she was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer. During the following years, it spread throughout her body. She was given two to four months to live last fall.
She died on Jan. 18.
In an interview with the CT Mirror just weeks before her death, Hoffman used some of her remaining strength to call for passage of an aid in dying bill, poised to be a key issue when the state legislature convenes in February. She wished the option had been available to her.
“I am advocating for our legislators to show compassion, kindness, care and sensitivity to those of us who face a terminal diagnosis,” she said. “It is kind and compassionate. It is a choice. It is not forced on anybody.
“It would give me such a sense of relief and peace. And I should say, it would give my family a sense of relief and peace as well, knowing I’m comforted by that.”
For the first time, a version of Connecticut’s aid in dying bill made it out of committee in 2021. The Public Health Committee voted 24-9 in favor of sending the measure to the House floor.
The bill did not come up for a vote in either chamber, however. It didn’t make it out of the Judiciary Committee.
Under last year’s proposal, an adult patient with a terminal illness – having six months or less to live – would have been able to access lethal drugs by making two oral requests at least 15 days apart, and one written request. The written request would have to be done in the presence of two witnesses who could attest that the patient is of sound mind and acting voluntarily.
A physician would prescribe or dispense the medication, and the patient would self-administer the drug. Requests for the medication may be rescinded by the patient at any time “without regard to his or her mental state,” according to the measure. A doctor would have to refer the patient to another consulting physician for medical confirmation of the person’s diagnosis and for confirmation that the patient is competent and acting voluntarily.
Although three Republicans joined 21 Democrats in supporting the bill last year, several members of the health committee acknowledged that the bill needed work.
As the 2022 session nears, proponents of the measure say they have incorporated the needed revisions and will press for a vote in the House.
“We came very close last year,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a co-chair of the Public Health Committee. “We have looked at the polling statewide, which indicates that the majority of Connecticut citizens are in favor of this. I think we made adjustments to the bill coming out of the committee and hearing processes that will make it have good prospects.”
A high priority
Steinberg and other leaders on the health committee have marked the proposal “No. 1” in terms of importance during the upcoming session, he said.
The Westport Democrat, who will complete his sixth term in 2022 and is considering not running again, has been a key backer of the legislation and is hoping to oversee its passage in what could be his final year.
“We’d like to get ready to go earlier rather than later so it doesn’t become a victim of priorities and the clock ticking out,” Steinberg said. “That’s our objective: Get it ready to go out the door and ready for a vote as quickly as possible.”
This year’s effort will involve seeking out “as many co-sponsors as possible,” he said, including members of both parties from both chambers. Steinberg noted that the same people will be returning to the legislature that voted it out of committee in 2021, and that the proposal is gaining favor among the public.
He and other proponents have pointed to polling by Compassion and Choices, an advocacy group that supports the legislation, showing 75% of Connecticut residents surveyed back the proposal. The organization polled 550 “likely 2022 general election voters” in March 2021.
A Quinnipiac University poll in 2015 found that 63% of voters supported the bill.
Aid in dying is legal in Oregon, Washington state, Montana, Vermont, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine, New Mexico and the District of Columbia.
“For us, it’s not a question of if the law will pass, it’s a question of when,” said Tim Appleton, senior campaign director with Compassion and Choices. “This issue has been before members of the public health committee on several occasions, and there was a tipping point of education, when people really began to understand exactly what this issue is about. People should have options – all options – at end of life, and aid in dying should be one of them.”
For Steinberg, a decade-plus of advocacy on the bill was inspired by a local Westport politician who was an early mentor. William Meyer, a longtime Representative Town Meeting member, had helped his terminally ill father end his life (he was charged with second-degree manslaughter and later placed on probation).
Meyer brought the issue of legalizing aid in dying to Steinberg during Steinberg’s first term in the legislature.
“I kind of took up the mantle, and it’s been something I’ve been working on for a lot of years,” Steinberg said. Meyer died in 2014.
In what may be his last term and final year as co-chair of the health committee, Steinberg said he hopes the bill will come up for a vote in the House and Senate.
“It’s certainly something I’d like to see done on my watch,” he said. “But I’m not exactly sure how long my watch is going to last.”
Uncertain path forward
Members of Connecticut’s disability community continue to oppose the measure.
Cathy Ludlum, head of Second Thoughts Connecticut, a grassroots organization whose advocates are against the legislation, said the proposal puts vulnerable people at greater risk.
“The very real likelihood of misdiagnosis, misprognosis, abuse and error is just enormous,” she said. “And when a life is ended, you can’t go back and say, ‘Whoops, that was a mistake.’”
“We in the disability community have to keep saying that we don’t want to get in the way of anyone’s personal choice. But when that choice becomes a threat to us, we have to stand up and say no.”
Stephen Mendelsohn, an advocate with Second Thoughts, said the bill “promotes suicide as a solution to problems.”
“This is bad social policy that puts everybody’s life in danger,” he said.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, said it’s too early to speculate on whether the measure will come up for a vote in his chamber.
“I couldn’t say at this point whether attitudes have changed, or whether they are evolving,” he said. “We’ve never actually had a full discussion to try to get a sense of it.”
House Speaker Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, said he personally supports the bill. But legislative leaders will have to take a vote count before deciding whether to raise the proposal in the House.
“It’s one of those issues where everyone has their own personal feeling about it. It’s not the kind of thing where the speaker can come in and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, we got this for you guys,’” he said. “This is a very, very emotional, personal thing for members of the caucus. And they will determine the fate of this bill.”