Connecticut assisted suicide bill would not safeguard against coercion, opponents say

Credit: ashley rose via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Hartford, Conn., Jan 19, 2021 / 02:01 pm (CNA).- Disability advocates criticized a Connecticut assisted suicide bill for failing to safeguard against coercion and for promoting the idea that the terminally ill are a burden on their caregivers.

“No amount of safeguards can counter the social stigma of needing help with intimate care, of having to rely on others for support, of seeing your caregivers are tired, and wondering whether the world would be better off without you,” Cathy Ludlum told the Hartford Courant.

Ludlum is the leader of Second Thoughts Connecticut, a group of disability advocates who oppose assisted suicide.

She added that the timing of the bill was suspect, as constituents are not allowed to gather and share their testimonies at public hearings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One has to wonder why you’re pushing it through during COVID-19 when constituents have less access to legislators and public hearings,” she said.

Various assisted suicide bills have been proposed in the state starting in 2013, though none have been passed into law.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (D), co-chair of the state legislature’s public health committee, told the Hartford Courant that this bill was a priority for his committee, and that “nothing of real consequence” had been changed in the bill since its previous introduction other than some tweaks that reflect “some of the learning we’ve had from experience of other states.” Assisted suicide is when a patient is given lethal drugs by their doctor that they must administer to themselves in order to end their life. It is legal in nine U.S. states, including California, Oregon, Colorado, and Maine, as well as in the District of Columbia.

Typical requirements that must be met for a patient to be allowed to request assisted suicide include mental competency, a prognosis of six months or fewer to live, and the approval of at least two doctors, though these requirements vary by state. Disability groups are frequently vocal opponents of assisted suicide legislation, which they argue targets vulnerable populations including the disabled, the ill, the elderly, and the poor. Patients rights advocacy groups have also pointed to cases in which ill patients were offered assisted suicide instead of treatment because it was the cheapest option.

Thomas E. Sullivan, a cardiologist in Massachusetts, told the Hartford Courant that one of the main reasons people request assisted suicide is because they feel they are a burden on their caregivers. Other reasons people frequently give include loneliness, depression, dementia, and a loss of control. But instead of offering to kill these patients, they should be cared for by “physiatrists and other disability care specialists and when appropriate, the role of hospice, palliative and compassionate experts who routinely perform these functions in a most humane manner,” Sullivan said. In written testimony for a 2019 bill in Connecticut that proposed legalized physician assisted suicide, provided to CNA, Ludlum said she feared that people with disabilities would be disproportionately nudged toward assisted suicide instead of being provided with appropriate psychological and emotional support. Under that year’s legislation, Ludlum said she could be considered a candidate for assisted suicide, because without a feeding tube and respiratory support, she likely would die. “What is to prevent someone like me from showing up at a doctor’s office and saying, ‘I have had enough. I will be stopping all my treatment’?” she said.

Ludlum said she was concerned that someone with a disability “would be more likely to get compassionate nods of approval” for assisted suicide, rather than offers of psychological help or palliative care.

Steinburg told the Hartford Courant that he did not think the disability community did “a particularly good job of either reading the actual language of the bill nor having evaluated the actual experience of states that have passed such legislation, where I’ve yet to see any real significant pattern of abuse, of coercion.”

“We’re talking about a very small population of terminally ill patients, not the disabled community. We go out of our way in the language to do everything we can to assure that no family member or friend is coercing the person involved. So it really disappoints me that they continue to, in my mind, blindly oppose this legislation,” he added. Lisa Blumberg, a Hartford-area attorney, told the Hartford Courant that she opposed the bill because the language of the bill only took into account the patient’s competence for choosing assisted suicide at the time of the prescription of the drugs, instead of at the moment when they would take them. “We don’t know if a patient is competent when he takes them. We don’t know if he is having bad day. We don’t know anything. We cannot afford to just have faith,” she said.

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