Medical, Catholic groups oppose bill to allow suicide drug prescriptions

For the third year in a row, the General Assembly is considering a bill that would allow physicians to prescribe medications to terminally ill patients so they could end their own lives.

The measure, which, as in past years, is being advanced by the national nonprofit advocacy group Compassion & Choices, has prompted an organized opposition campaign. The Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference on Friday launched its "Don't Jump" series of messages on transit buses, in radio and newspaper ads and in other outlets. Groups including Connecticut Hospice and the Connecticut State Medical Society are also maintaining their opposition.

"Our effort is to educate and inform the citizens of Connecticut about the legislation," Michael Culhane, executive director of the Catholic conference, said Monday, adding that this is the first campaign of its kind for the group. "This would be terrible public policy."

Culhane said that although the assisted suicide bills in 2013 and 2014 both died before they came to a full vote of the legislature, his group decided a public information campaign was needed to keep this year's measure from gaining momentum.

The bill is sponsored by 16 state senators and representatives, including Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven. He and Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, the deputy president pro tempore, and Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, are the lead sponsors of the bill, currently pending in the Judiciary Committee. In its current version, the bill requires that patients be mentally competent and be able to take the medication themselves.

Winfield said the bill will probably be revised to add safeguards to prevent the elderly and disabled from being coerced into requesting the suicide medications. He said the hearings on the bill could take place both in the Judiciary and Public Health committees. Although no hearings have been scheduled yet, he said, he has been hearing from many constituents on all sides of the issue.

"I've heard it all," he said. "I just know this is something we should have a real open and honest conversation about."

Winfield said his support for the bill comes from watching his mother's suffering before her death in 2012. A strong woman for most of her life, she was in so much pain at the end that she asked to die, he said.

"Her suffering was to the point where she asked for something outside of her character," Winfield said. "I now live with the memory of watching my mother beg to die. It was devastating."

Tim Appleton is manager of Compassion & Choices' Connecticut campaign. He believes the national media attention generated by Brittany Maynard, a California woman with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, gives added momentum to the Connecticut bill this year. Before Maynard, 30, ended her life last November, she publicly advocated for legalization of assisted suicide.

Appleton said assisted suicide should be a matter of personal choice.

"It's completely voluntary," he said. "There's nothing that forces anyone to do anything. A physician wouldn't be forced to write a prescription, and a pharmacist wouldn't be forced to fill it."

In addition to Oregon, assisted suicide is also legal in Vermont and Washington state. Marcel Blanchet, chief communications director for Connecticut Hospice, said Connecticut should not follow their example.

"We're saddened that other states have done this," he said. "Palliative care and hospice are the most important ways of providing patients with dignity and quality of life as long as life lasts."

For doctors, prescribing life-ending medications would be in direct conflict with the principles of the Hippocratic Oath they have pledged to follow, said Dr. Robert Russo, president of the Connecticut State Medical Society.

"As physicians, our life's work is built on healing," he said. "We believe we're making great strides in palliative care. We can control the pain. We don't want patients to look at physicians as someone who could end it all."

j.benson@theday.com

Twittter:@BensonJudy

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