Compassionate aid in dying is a fundamental right

As a lawyer practicing in southeastern Connecticut for more than 25 years, I often meet with clients to talk about estate planning and end of life issues such as advance health directives and wills.

The Connecticut General Assembly's consideration this year of a bill that would allow compassionate aid in dying is another step in a long, evolving trend in the law that recognizes our fundamental human right to control our own bodies up to and including death.

The proposed bill would allow a select group of qualified patients to accelerate the time of their death. The narrow class of people who qualify as patients must ask for aid in dying; not be depressed; and have two doctors determine they have an incurable and irreversible medical condition that will result in death in six months. The proposed law has many other safeguards.

I know I am not the only person in our community who has watched a loved one suffer through the final months of an excruciating terminal illness, enduring the loss of mental faculties, physical abilities, memory, and the ability to enjoy life - the very qualities that make us human and make life worth living.

Oregon has had an aid in dying law since 1997. While critics claim there will be a parade of abuses if such a law is adopted here, 15 years of experience in that state shows no such thing has occurred there, and there is no reason to think such would occur here.

The state-mandated 14th annual report on the Oregon Death with Dignity law informs us that of those who obtained the medication last year, 90 percent were in hospice care, 81 percent had cancer and 95 percent died at home.

According to the report, only 1,050 individuals have asked for prescriptions under the Oregon law since its implementation in 1997. Further, only 673 of those who got the prescriptions have used it.

What the report tells us is that in addition to giving dying patients a choice, it also provides them with equally important peace of mind. There is nothing in these numbers or otherwise to suggest people are using this law for evil.

So the question is should we pass a law that will give qualified patients a certain amount of control over how they die and how much pain, suffering and loss of faculties they will endure before dying?

As a dying individual, must we impose upon our families and loved ones an equal measure of pain and suffering by having them stand witness to our suffering? What if that is not the end you want for yourself? Must we be required to die in the manner others choose for us? Must we die someone else's death?

We are a creative people who sometimes find ways to end our suffering and loss of control even without physician provided medication, such as with hoarded pills or firearms hidden away. But that path can lead to legal problems for our loved ones, and a grim isolation for the terminally ill patient who may feel they must act alone and in secret. Why can we not offer a different path for those who want one?

To the opponents of this proposal, I point out that no doctor or health care facility is required to participate or provide aid in dying. The entire process is voluntary.

What good reason is there for refusing a citizen of our state the right, with all the protections in this proposal, to make that choice if they feel it is the right one for them?

Our legislature has a tremendous opportunity to do something of lasting and material benefit for our citizens that shows courage, humanity, and compassion by adopting this compassionate aid in dying legislation.

James L. Young of Mystic practices law in and is involved in municipal and community organizations in southeastern Connecticut. He is a former resident of Oregon.


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