HARTFORD – Catholic school students played a big part in defeating an assisted-suicide bill before the Connecticut General Assembly even got to consider it.
The Public Health Committee failed to report favorably on H.B. 5326, “An Act Concerning Compassionate Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Patients.”
This was the second year in a row that an assisted-suicide bill died in committee.
The bill would have allowed patients who were not expected to live beyond six months to request that their doctor prescribe life-ending drugs that they could self-administer – effectively committing suicide.
After a March 17 public hearing, nearly 450 documents of testimony were posted publicly on the state’s official website at www.cga.ct.gov. An unofficial tally by The Catholic Transcript gave opposing testimony a very slight edge, but if not for scores of letters from students at several archdiocesan high schools, supporters would have far outnumbered opponents.
Dr. Dale R. Hoyt, superintendent of Catholic schools, was so impressed with a letter from Ireland Gilmore, a student at Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury, that he forwarded a copy to Archbishop Leonard P. Blair.
Miss Gilmore’s 1,200-word letter to the Public Health Committee states in part: “As a Catholic, I strongly oppose this bill because life should be treated as a precious gift, not something that can be ended with a swallow of a pill or sip of medicine.... God has a plan for each and every one of us, and we, as humans, should not get in the way of His plans for our lives.”
In a letter distributed at Masses on March 9, Archbishop Blair urged parishioners to ask state lawmakers to oppose the bill.
“Together with members of the health care community and those representing the elderly and disabled, the Bishops strongly oppose the legislation being put forward in Connecticut,” Archbishop Blair wrote.
Dr. Hoyt discussed the archbishop’s letter with school administrators, urging them to use it as a teaching tool by asking students to write letters to their state representatives and senators, as well as to the Public Health Committee. Letters to the committee ended up as public testimony.
Adrian Huberny, a senior at St. Paul Catholic High School in Bristol, questioned the six-month clause, arguing that many individuals outlive that span by months or years. “H.B. 5326 will lead people to give up on treatment and lose good years of their lives,” Adrian wrote.
Shelby Watson, a junior at Holy Cross High School in Waterbury, wrote, “I believe that life is a sacred gift from God, and should be cherished and protected. Assisted suicide is a grave violation of God’s law which forbids the deliberate killing of a human person.”
Cary M. Dupont, president of St. Paul, said that senior class religion teacher Samuel Todzia suggested the letter-writing project to his students as an exercise in faith in action. More than 30 students wrote letters, as did Mr. Todzia.
Dr. Hoyt said, “I am very proud of our Catholic school students’ demonstrating faithful citizenship upholding the Catholic teaching on the dignity of life.” He said that part of a Catholic school administrator’s duty “is to help these students become productive, virtuous citizens, and so when there are issues that challenge the teachings of our church, ... we want our students to be in the forefront, to be able to voice their opinions and their thoughts based on what they have been formed and educated in Catholic schools.”
At the March 17 public hearing, Eileen Bianchini, chair of the Connecticut Right To Life Corp., told the Transcript that the bill would effectively absolve doctors of any wrongdoing in the event of a malpractice suit. “If the physicians are signing the death certificates saying [patients] died of natural causes, or of the illness, it makes any suits pretty weak,” she said.
Eleanore Marchand, a registered nurse and a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Newington, said she tried to prevent a facility from euthanizing her mother in Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, in 1999. “She did not have a terminal illness. She fell and broke her hip,” Ms. Marchand said. “I asked her if she realized that the morphine they were giving her was killing her, and she said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Do you want to die?’ She said, ‘No.’” When she reported this conversation to the staff, she was told to leave, she said. Her mother died.
Michael C. Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference (CCPAC), the public policy office of the state’s Catholic bishops, said in his testimony that an act passed last year – PA 13-55, “An Act Concerning an Advisory Council on Palliative Care” – was a positive step.
Pending legislation dealing with “Medical Orders for Life-sustaining Treatment” (MOLST) is also supported in concept by CCPAC, he said.
He said, “[T]he State has an obligation to the sick and suffering within our borders and accordingly, the State should direct their efforts towards research and programs to enhance palliative and hospice care, ... [not] to promote physician-assisted suicide.”
After the defeat of the bill, the CCPAC issued a thank-you to those who helped defeat the bill. Archbishop Blair, on Twitter, wrote, “Thanks for speaking up against the Assisted-Suicide legislation. It did not go to vote this year. When it resurfaces in 2015, we'll be ready.”