Large Crowd Gathers for Doctor-Assisted Suicide Bill Hearing

More than a hundred people signed up to testify at a public hearing in Hartford, Conn. on Monday as debate began on a controversial bill that would allow terminally ill patients to end their own lives.

The public health committee of the state legislature is hearing both sides of the debate as they decide on a bill that would give patients who are at least 18 years old the right to obtain lethal medication from doctors.

Advocates arrived at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford as early as 7 a.m., more than three hours before the hearing began.

Quinnipiac University conducted a poll earlier this month that found Connecticut voters support physician-assisted suicide, 61 percent to 32 percent.

Barry Williams, a former lobbyist from Glastonbury, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and said he could see himself making this decision down the line.

"It's the last choice that people have in their lives to make," he said.

A 1969 Connecticut law states that a person who ‘‘intentionally causes or aids another person, other than by force, duress or deception, to commit suicide’’ is guilty of second-degree manslaughter.

Last year, two doctors and end-of-life advocates sued to seek a clarification of the state’s decades-old ban on assisted suicide, citing concerns about Connecticut doctors being prosecuted for giving medications to their dying patients.

A judge ultimately dismissed the suit, saying it was a matter for the legislature to decide.

State Attorney General George Jepsen was among those who testified in support of the measure.

"It's an idea that's time has come," Jepsen said at the hearing.

Many people say this proposed legislation is dangerous and promotes under-treating of patients.

Michael Culhane of Connecticut Public Affairs said the "aid in dying" bill would violate a major tenant of the Catholic Church – "that life is sacred from conception to natural death."

Earlier this month, the Archdiocese of Hartford called upon parishioners to ask lawmakers to vote against the bill.

“As we Bishops have pointed out, ‘physician-assisted suicide does not promote compassion because its focus is not on eliminating suffering, but on eliminating the patient…,” a letter from Archbishop Leonard Blair says. 

Opposition at the hearing was not limited to religious grounds.

"The medical society, the various hospice associations in Connecticut, they all say it's not necessary and they are the ones who take care of us at the end of our lives," said Peter Wolfgang of the Family Institute of Connecticut Action.

But Jepsen emphasized that the bill wouldn't compel patients to decide in favor of doctor-assisted suicide.

"Choice means choice," he said.

Gov. Dannel Malloy said earlier he supports people having a document that spells out their final wishes, but he's "a little uneasy" when it comes to enacting state policy that calls for "proactive actions to end life.

The hearing began at 10:30 a.m. in Room 1D of the Legislative Office Building. Lawmakers had expected a big crowd and set up Room 2D as an overflow room.

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