Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Saturday, February 17, 2018

PAS hearing 8363 webHundreds of people fill a room at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford on March 18 as a hearing before the legislature’s judiciary committee offered people the opportunity to present their views on House Bill 7015, An Act Concerning Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Patients. (Photo by Karen O. Bray)

HARTFORD – The cold March wind on March 18 did not deter more than 200 people from testifying at the third Connecticut public hearing in as many years on the attempt to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the state of Connecticut.

The hearing before the  legislature’s judiciary committee offered people the opportunity to present their views on House Bill 7015, An Act Concerning Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Patients.

Michael C. Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference, the public advocacy office of the state’s bishops, told the Transcript, “The Catholic Church has long opposed physician-assisted suicide. And in the last three years since this legislation has come before the Connecticut General Assembly, the Catholic Conference has been a strong opponent of this proposed law.”

He said a new website, dontjump.org, is part of a campaign to educate people about the bill’s intent and implications.

“It would be a horrendous public policy, and it would be legislation that the state of Connecticut should not get involved with,” he said.

In his testimony, he stated that this was not solely a Catholic issue. “The church is but one of dozens of organizations representing the medical, nursing, hospice, elderly and disability communities who have publicly and emphatically and consistently opposed this legislation,” he stated.

From the morning into nighttime, judiciary committee members heard testimony, sometimes personal and poignant.

Supporters said they favored the bill because it would enable them or their loved ones to have dignified deaths without pain.

A Connecticut resident living with AIDS, Karina Andrea Danvers, wrote, “I don’t know if I will ever make the same choice Brittany [Maynard] made of ending her life via pharmaceuticals ... I don’t know if my faith or perhaps  lack of courage would ever allow me to do it; however I do know that I would like to have the ‘medical’ option right here in my home state.”

Brittany Maynard is the 29-year-old woman who opted for suicide late in 2014 under Oregon’s law.

Dr. Robert Russo, president of the Connecticut State Medical Society, addressed chairman William Tong and committee members in opposing the bill.

  Dr. Russo said he was representing 6,000 Connecticut physicians. Not only has his board repeatedly voted against these sorts of bills and processes, he said, but the national American Medical Association has taken multiple stands against this, based on medical ethics.

At issue, he said, are two ingredients that make up a patient-doctor bond. “The first is hope. They go to their doctor with the hope that they are going to be cured or helped. And there’s faith. With that faith they believe the doctor is well-trained. And they trust the doctor to make wise decisions,” he said.

Dr. Russo repudiated earlier testimony that there hasn’t been much change in palliative care. “That’s absolutely wrong,” he said. “There have been great strides in palliative care. And there’s great news in these hospice systems.”

The problem, he said, is that terminally ill patients in Connecticut engage hospice only in the last two weeks of their lives. HB 7015 would allow patients to end their lives long before that.

“Once society starts thinking that suicide is an answer, it spreads,” he said. “We’re very concerned about the slippery slope. The physicians in the state of Connecticut overwhelmingly do not think this is good patient care and there’s no quality in what we’re talking about. We want to be healers. We should not be working to give the physician the power to talk somebody into this end-of-life process.”

Other testimony in opposition to the bill was offered by Bristol resident Maggie Karner, who was diagnosed with the same cancer as that of Brittany Maynard. Both Ms. Maynard and Mrs. Karner have attracted high-volume social media attention on the issue.

Mrs. Karner told the committee: “It’s about all of us, together, as a society. Physician-assisted suicide is not a private or personal act. It involves much more than just the patient. It includes doctors, pharmacists and the state, which we hold to protect and safeguard the most vulnerable. I believe we’re better than that. Instead, let’s put our best Connecticut minds toward developing great pain management techniques, and early and easily accessible palliative and hospice care.”

Responding to a question about physician-patient trust, Mrs. Karner said, “A patient, when very vulnerable, hands over a lot of trust; this is sacrosanct to our system. When we provide alternatives to medical care that eliminate life or jeopardize someone’s ability to continue with their plan of treatment, that flies in the face of that sacrosanct trust. It’s part of the Hippocratic Oath, [and] whether the doctor signs onto it or not, we, as patients, do.”

Mrs. Karner said another concern was the death certificate, which must state that the cause of death was the underlying illness, not the suicide. “This means health professionals will be falsifying the death certificate, which will be a lie.”

The Rev. Joshua Pawelek, a minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society, also backed the bill. He said it would enable people who wish “to end their life by their own hand” to die with dignity.

Helen Armstrong, 78, of Coventry, submitted written testimony in favor of the bill, writing in part, “Most of us want to have choices about when to die, as we become increasingly debilitated and perhaps experience intractable, incurable suffering.” She urged passage of an aid-in-dying bill “with proper safeguards against abusive or coerced actions.”

Gail Southard Canzano, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist from West Hartford, also favored the bill, writing, “I can see no earthly reason for people to endure unnecessary suffering (mental or physical) in their final days. Nor can I understand why families must stand by helplessly as their loved ones beg them for help in dying.”Individuals representing such groups as Second Choices spoke against the bill on behalf of the disabled community.

The parish at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury sent a bus to the hearing.

One member of that group, John Waite, is president of Connecticut Right to Life. He told the Transcript, “It’s so easy to listen to the rhetoric on the other side. As Catholics, I think we need to be out there, and also as Catholics we need to understand the issue so we can talk about it.”