Legislative committee tackles tough question of patient's right to die

Hartford - William Meyer of Westport recalled putting a plastic bag over his father's head and holding his hands when he died. The spokesman for the Hemlock Society, a nationwide right-to-die organization, said Wednesday that his father had been suffering after five cancer operations and had asked his son to help end his life.

"I think it is an individual choice," Meyer said as he testified in favor of House Bill 6645 before the Public Health Committee.

The bill would allow a physician to prescribe medication to end a patient's life if the patient requested the prescription and could self-administer the medication.

The bill specifies criteria to determine whether a patient qualifies to bring about his or her own death. The patient would have to be considered competent or of sound mind and would have to be suffering from an incurable and irreversible medical condition that would result in death within six months, according to the patient's attending physician.

The bill would not require a patient to get a psychiatric evaluation if the attending physician finds the patient competent, nor would the patient have to get a second opinion as to whether the disease is terminal. The bill also would not require the patient to go through a waiting period, as do similar laws in other states.

Meyer's father would have lived for six to seven months in agony, Meyer said. His father spent a lot of time thinking about it; it wasn't a quick decision, he said.

In 1994, Connecticut magazine featured Meyer in an article that described what he had done. After the article was published, he was arrested, charged with second-degree manslaughter.

In the aftermath of the arrest, Meyer appeared on the Today Show, 60 Minutes and on the front page of The New York Times. Politicians and ministers spoke on his behalf, and more than 300 letters in support of his action were sent to Superior Court Judge Thomas Miano, Meyer said.

"One thing I learned from this is how many people have a miserable, terrible last part of their life," Meyer said.

At the pre-trial hearing, he was given accelerated rehabilitation - a period of unsupervised probation for up to two years.

Waiting period question

Meyer said Wednesday that he supports the bill, but also wants it to include a waiting period. Many legislators on the committee also said they were concerned about excluding the waiting period and questioned state Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, who testified in favor of the bill.

"The imposition of a waiting period could deny them the opportunity or ability to make this decision at a time when it could help them," Ritter said.

State Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, said he would argue that a psychiatrist or psychologist would be better able to determine someone's competency than a physician.

"My concern was that if that was not needed, it could be a time delay," Ritter said.

But a co-sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, who said he is not related to William Meyer, said he also is in favor of a waiting period and of requiring the patient to get a second opinion to determine whether an illness is terminal.

"Those kind of safeguards make a lot of sense," he said.

He said the bill is important because its intention is to bring about death with dignity in a professional manner.

State Rep. Peggy Sayers, D-Windsor Locks, said she had a problem with the bill and would rather see people go to a hospice where they can die with the support of their family.

"To me, this sounds hopeless. You make a decision all alone by yourself with no one to comfort you or offer any help," Sayers said.

She called the aid in dying described by the bill "assisted suicide" and asked what the difference was between getting approval from a doctor for end-of-life medication and "taking a whole bottle of Tylenol and taking a bottle of Jameson."

"It's not dignified, to be so hopeless and in such an uncaring situation that you need to take something to die. To me, that is not very dignified," Sayers said.

Sara Myers, 58, testified, urging legislators to pass the bill. She said she has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The disease progressively degenerates the motor neurons, which deteriorates the brain's ability to control muscle movement. In the later stages, a person becomes paralyzed, and the disease eventually leads to death.

"I am not scared of death, but I am scared of the way ALS is killing me," she said.

She said she needs help bathing, using the toilet and dressing. She had trouble breathing during the hearing and said the disease is affecting her ability to control her diaphragm. It will take two to three days to recover from testifying, she said, adding that it is well worth it.

"I am not ready to make the choice today, but I yearn for the option," Myers said.

A number of people representing people with disabilities spoke out against the bill.

"This bill amounts to a government recommendation that sometimes death is the best treatment," said John Kelly, director of a Massachusetts-based organization Second Thoughts.

He said doctors have said they can't predict when someone will die, and there are people who have outlived their prognoses.

In the health care system, people with disabilities are already encouraged to refuse treatment and choose "do not resuscitate," Kelly said. "Adding this bill is like adding gasoline to a fire."

Sen. Meyer said the bill has a provision that says if someone were to coerce a patient into taking his or her own life, that person would be guilty of murder.

"This is a tough bill," he said.



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