With the 2014 legislative session now underway we once again have the opportunity to take up an issue of great importance: Aid in Dying (AID). And take it up we should.
For the uninitiated, AID is a law that would allow competent terminally ill patients, who have been deemed by two physicians to have six months or less to live, to receive a prescription for a lethal dose of medication in order to hasten their deaths. The key aspect of the proposed legislation is that it is entirely voluntary. Neither patients nor doctors are required to participate. It is merely an option. An option that exists in Oregon, Washington State, Montana and Vermont but not in Connecticut, where it is strictly prohibited. That needs to change.
Despite the fact the public surveys show that a majority of Connecticut residents favor AID, there is opposition amongst lawmakers and some advocacy groups. The opposing points of view, which seem to fall into four categories, need to be examined. They are based upon 1) absolutism; 2) fear of exploitation of the elderly and disabled; 3) fear of the so-called “slippery slope”; and 4) belief in the adequacy of hospice.
The absolutists position, typically put forth by religious groups, can be summarized as follows: “Aid in Dying is ‘wrong’ in all cases and should therefore be prohibited in all cases.” The reply, as one might predict, is: “We respect the fact that your religious beliefs prohibit you from participating in AID. However, the mere fact that you hold those beliefs does not entitle you to impose them on those who might not share them.”
Those who fear exploitation of the elderly and/or disabled are primarily concerned with unintended consequences. As such, they, unlike the absolutists, would not categorically reject the concept of allowing an appropriate patient to obtain AID, but rather fear that elderly and/or disabled patients might be ensnared by the law against their wishes. The concern is that unscrupulous family members and/or doctors would subtly, or not so subtly, coerce patients to elect AID even if they didn’t want it. Concern over this possibility may have been legitimate before Oregon enacted its AID law in 1997, at which point there was no data to examine. However, as we now have access to 16 years worth of information from Oregon, we can rest assured that those concerns are no longer warranted. In short, the data from Oregon reveal a complete absence of documented events of coercion and/or abuse. The Oregon law allows anyone who suspects coercion or abuse the file a complaint. None has ever been filed.
(As an aside, I have never understood the opposition by groups who advocate for the disabled. Having a disability, in and of itself, is hardly the equivalent of being terminally ill.)
Then there are those who put forth the “slippery slope” argument. They believe that enactment of AID legislation will result in future attempts to expand its scope to include a greater number and/or class of people. Again, the data from Oregon is instructive: not only has the law not been expanded, no attempt has ever been made.
The final group of opponents comes from, oddly enough, hospice. At last year’s legislative hearings, hospice advocates opposed the bill, claiming that hospice could and would fulfill all the needs of all dying patients in all situations, rendering AID legislation unnecessary. Although hospice is a wonderful service, and one which AID proponents wholeheartedly support, there is medical evidence that some patients are beyond it’s help. AID proponents do not consider AID and hospice to be at odds, but rather to complement each other, enhancing patient choice.
As we (hopefully) debate this issue during the current session we are obligated to examine the data from Oregon during the deliberations. It is a treasure trove of information that allows us to make a highly informed, instead of a highly uninformed, decision. The people of Connecticut deserve it.
It’s time to act. We as lawyers, and more importantly, as citizens owe it to our terminally ill fellow citizens to provide them the choice AID legislation offers. We cannot lose sight of the fact that current Connecticut law, if allowed to remain unchanged, dooms these patients to horrible deaths, despite the desires of those patients to elect a more peaceful and controlled death, and the willingness of their doctors to assist them in their efforts.
Every moment of every day of every month of every year there are terminally ill Connecticut residents somewhere who are imprisoned in the torture chambers that their bodies have become. We can release them. How do we live with ourselves if we don’t act?
Duane Lueders is a personal injury lawyer in West Hartford.