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Aid-in-dying bill clears committee vote

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a co-chair of the public health committee, said "strongly held" religious beliefs prevented the aid in dying measure from advancing in the 2019 legislative session.
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a co-chair of the public health committee, said "strongly held" religious beliefs prevented the aid in dying measure from advancing in the 2019 legislative session.

A bill that would allow terminally ill patients access to medication that would end their lives cleared an important hurdle Friday afternoon, passing out of the Public Health Committee for the second consecutive year.

“There are a lot of raw emotions related to even the prospect of even having to avail oneself of this legislation,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, co-chair of the committee and D-Westport. “I’m sure none of us wish for ourselves, our families or anybody we know, the prospect of having to even contemplate such a choice, but we want to at least afford them that option.”

The bill passed out of the Public Health Committee by a vote of 22-9 after two hours of debate.

The step is one of the first that a measure must take before it can become law. Similar legislation has been raised in more than a dozen prior legislative sessions but had not been passed out of committee until last year.

To qualify for access to life-ending medication, under the bill, patients with a terminal illness must submit two written requests to their attending physician, the second submitted at least 15 days after the first. Each written request has to be witnessed by two people who are not immediate family members or entitled to a portion of an estate at the time of a person’s death.

Republicans, led by Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, tried to pass an amendment that would have made it a crime to sell or administer the drug to anyone other than a qualified patient. Somers said the amendment was important because it added a level of public safety otherwise missing from the proposal.

“We are talking about drugs that are deadly, and if used improperly could not only kill somebody who is not on the end of their life, but could cause severe and unchangeable consequences should someone take them improperly,” said Somers.

The amendment was notable because, if successful, it would have likely meant the bill would have been sent to the Judiciary Committee, where a similar proposal was sent last yearbefore it died in that committee.

Somers’ proposal was a part of the underlying bill but was taken out after legislators determined existing state laws and the underlying proposal adequately protected the public from potential abuses.

Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, pointed out that stealing, taking other people’s medications and transporting meds without their original packaging are all already crimes. Ever since lawmakers started reforming the state’s criminal laws, he said, other legislators have proposed criminalizing new acts, making them potentially punishable by prison time.

“Felonies ruin people’s lives,” Tercyak said. “I’m content with them being arrested for stealing, for having a medication that isn’t prescribed for them and for having medication not carried in its original labeled container. I think that’s enough.”

The amendment failed by a vote of 17-12.

Despite the amendment failing, legislators continued discussing where the bill would go once it passed out of committee. Steinberg said it was unclear where it would be sent. Regardless, said Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, expressed confidence it would be sent to the appropriate place.

“If it goes through Senate screening, the attorneys will send it to where it needs to go,” said Moore.

Steinberg acknowledged the passionate public hearing the committee held last week, during which more than 120 people offered their thoughts on the proposal. He and his colleagues referenced the pain of family members whose loved ones experienced profound agony before their deaths, the advocates who lost their lives before legislators could pass the bill.

“We have very much heard you,” Steinberg said. “We struggle sometimes to turn these desires, these wishes for better outcomes, into law, but that is indeed our intent today.”

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