HARTFORD – For a decade, voting rights activist Luther Weeks has been at the forefront of pushing for medical aid-in-dying legislation in Connecticut.
When he was diagnosed in February 2022 with terminal prostate cancer, his mission became personal.
Weeks, a 77-year-old Glastonbury resident and chairperson of Secular Connecticut, took up the cause of medical aid-in-dying because he believed it was a human rights issue. He said people, with the advice and input from their doctors, should be able to end their lives with medication on their terms.
“It’s my body. It’s my life,” Weeks recently told CT Examiner, adding he has about five years to live. He finished his first round of chemotherapy last spring and is scheduled for his second round next year.
Weeks said he’s heard enough personal stories from advocates of the proposal – which has either been voted down in the state Legislature or never made it through committee – to know that it’s time for Connecticut to join 10 other states and Washington, D.C., to pass such legislation.
The medical aid-in-dying topic took center stage again earlier this month when advocates, including Weeks, held a news conference announcing they would attempt to pass legislation in 2024. The legislative session starts in early February.
Advocates say Senate Bill 1076, which made it out of the Public Health Committee in 2023 but was never taken up by the Judiciary Committee, has the most stringent safeguards of any aid-in-dying law in the country.
Fashioned after Oregon’s law, Connecticut’s version states that only adults ages 21 or older that are terminally ill with six months or less to live can take a mix of prescribed medications to end their life. State lawmakers say they expect to propose a bill similar to Senate Bill 1076.
Other provisions of the bill outline rules for physicians, and state that the individual must be mentally capable of making the decision and able to self-administer the medication.
Those who oppose such legislation – including advocates for the disabled and the Catholic Church – argue that safeguards could go farther and that all aspects of hospice care have not been taken into consideration.
Staunchly opposed to any medical aid-in-dying proposal is State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, a ranking member of the Public Health Committee.
She has proposed a bill that requires the Department of Public Health to create a pilot program providing in-home hospice care patients with a combination of daily telehealth consultations with a doctor and two in-person visits from a nurse each day. There are also provisions in Somers’ proposal that require insurers to compensate patients for in-home hospice, similar to hospital care.
“There are people that want to have control over their last days of life when they are suffering from a terminal disease, and I understand that,” said Somers, whose mother was in a hospice setting before dying last month in a nursing facility. “However, in testimony that we heard repeatedly now for almost seven years – those who we heard the loudest from – were people that had very difficult experiences with hospice at home. So instead of allowing individuals under a doctor’s order to take an off-label medication that may work in causing your death, let’s focus on improving the end-of-life services that we provide for people. It’s all about educating people in the hospice setting.”
Somers also expressed concern over aid-in-dying medication after it’s used, and the possible suffering a patient might endure if they don’t die for several hours.
“People are not alive anymore, so you do not know if it took them five or more hours to die,” Somers said. She also called the term “medical aid-in-dying” disingenuous.
“It’s suicide,” she said.
Somers added there could be more support for such a measure in Connecticut if the provisions “were more clinical,” noting that the most recent bill does not call for doctors to be present when someone chooses to end their life.
Cathy Ludlum, leader of the Manchester-based organization Second Thoughts Connecticut, told CT Examiner that passing medical aid-in-dying legislation in the state would be the beginning of a slippery slope toward abuse of the system.
“It happened in Canada,” said the 61-year-old, who was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a congenital disability that causes paralysis. “In Canada, people who have a need for home care are being offered suicide instead.”
Asked if she was worried such scenarios could happen here, she responded, “I know it will happen here.”
Ludlum, who has spoken at the state Capitol against medical aid-in-dying proposals in the past, also vehemently disagrees with advocates who say Connecticut’s plan would have stringent safeguards against abuse.
She claims safeguards in other states have been loosened.
“For example, there was a residency requirement for Vermont and Oregon that has been overturned,” she said, explaining that anyone who wants to take medication to end their life can now travel to those states to do so.
Ludlum said she worries medical aid-in-dying laws could affect the most vulnerable in society.
”This can hurt the vulnerable – the disabled, people of color, people in poverty, the homeless,” she said. “There are a lot of implications that are not good.”
But State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, chair of the Public Health Committee, told CT Examiner he believes safeguards would be put in place to prevent abuses. Anwar, a lung doctor since 1995, said individuals should be able to make such a decision for themselves, with guidance from medical professionals.
“I would like people to be able to make that choice with the right protections in place and the right guidance in place, so that the risk of making a bad decision would be eliminated,” said Anwar, who noted he does plan to bring the measure up for a vote in 2024.
Anwar said he used to be against medical aid-in-dying legislation, but after hearing the testimony of family members and advocates, he changed his mind.
“If you look at the testimonies of the various legislators, they will tell you that they were a hard no at one point to the bill, myself included,” Anwar said. “But, over time, we realized the situation and how many people were impacted.”
When asked if he thought legislation would pass in Connecticut in 2024, Anwar said, “It has to go through the process. We are always hopeful for the benefit of people in the community who actually have been waiting for something like this after they’ve seen the difficulty with their loved ones and the pain and suffering of their loved ones.”
Anwar said it’s about giving people that option, and estimated less than 10 people a year in the state would actually follow through to end their lives.
Medical aid-in-dying advocate Tim Appleton, of South Windsor, decided to walk across the state to promote the cause.
“I think you get to a certain age in your life where we have experienced deaths of loved ones,” the 57-year-old told CT Examiner. “They should be able to chart their own end-of-life care journey aligned with their values and beliefs.”
So far, Appleton has walked about 185 miles throughout the state, with the goal of walking more than 300 miles total.
He travels with about half a dozen supporters and wears a high-visibility vest that reads: “Ask me about aid in dying.”
Appleton said he has been asked by many people along his route about the topic.
“First, what I hear is people asking what is taking lawmakers so long to pass this bill …,” said Appleton. “The other thing I hear is how many people out there will suffer unnecessarily before lawmakers do the right thing.”
Gov. Ned Lamont’s office did not respond to a request for comment by CT Examiner.