By Chris Haring

At a recent forum, legislators, right-to-die advocates, and more gathered to discuss a potential Death with Dignity law, its requirements, and implications.

The ongoing conversation around medical aid-in-dying legislation in Connecticut took center stage at perhaps the most prestigious university in the state.

A November forum hosted by the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics drew over 260 attendees (participating in-person and virtually), reflecting the growing interest in the discussion around end-of-life options within the state.

The forum featured several notable figures who shed light on various facets of physician-assisted death. Panelists included Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics Director Stephen Latham and Thaddeus Pope from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, whose insights provided a comprehensive view of the multifaceted landscape surrounding assisted-dying legislation.

Death with Dignity offers “agency” in death

As Elba Heddsheimer & Erin Hu reported for the Yale Daily News, Pope – a law professor and bioethicist – explained that the concept of Death with Dignity emphasizes the significance of granting individuals agency in determining the manner and timing of their deaths. 

Latham added that while many assume legalizing the practice will “incentivize the healthcare system to provide low-quality care to people with low income,” studies show that in Oregon, for example, it’s primarily insured and educated patients who choose assisted death.

Lawmaker aims to protect doctors, honor patient autonomy

Additionally, State Representative Josh Elliott (D – Hamden), who co-sponsored a 2023 bill that failed to advance through the Joint Committee on Public Health, expressed his vision for legislation prioritizing the protection of individuals within the medical community while honoring patient autonomy. Following the lead of many current aid-in-dying states, Pope noted that the bill set stringent conditions, including a minimum age of 21, decisional capacity, and a terminal illness diagnosis.

As the right-to-die movement continues to gather momentum in the state, events like these are crucial to advancing its ongoing discourse. For more information on how to get involved in efforts to bring a Death with Dignity law to Connecticut, please visit the state page on our website.

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(Disclaimer: As they appear in the following story, the terms “assisted suicide” and “euthanasia” are problematic and inaccurate. Correct, appropriate terms include “medical aid in dying” or “physician-assisted dying/death.” Additionally, in jurisdictions with codified Death with Dignity laws, each specifies that medical aid in dying is, in fact, not suicide, nor a means to assist in suicide, so to call it otherwise is technically and legally inaccurate.)

Advocates, opponents discuss medical aid-in-dying legislation in Connecticut

published: 2:17 AM, NOV 16, 2023

Over 260 people attended the forum, hosted by the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where panelists outlined medical aid-in-dying statistics, benefits and opposition.

Medical aid-in-dying was a hot-button issue in Connecticut’s last legislative session. A recent forum discussed the policy, with an eye toward 2024. 

On Nov. 14, the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics hosted a community forum in Marsh Lecture Hall and on Zoom to discuss Connecticut’s Bill on medical aid-in-dying, or MAID. Over 260 people attended in person or on Zoom. Panelists Stephen Latham, director of Yale’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Thaddeus Pope, bioethicist and professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law and Jules Good, a disability justice activist and policy analyst, provided insight about MAID from various angles including national trends, international and ethical trends and opposition. 

After the event, the News spoke with Joan Cavanagh, an advocate against MAID, who criticized the panel for its lack of viewpoint diversity. 

The forum opened with remarks from Connecticut State Representative Josh Elliot who emphasized the importance of listening to advocates from every side of the issue. 

“What we should be getting from this process is the strongest bill possible that protects people who are at deficits within the medical community, but also supports people who are looking to ensure that they have self-determination when it comes to their bodily autonomy,” Elliot said. 

Eliot was one of the lead sponsors during the 2023 Connecticut General Assembly supporting a bill that would have legalized MAID in Connecticut if passed. This bill made it farther than ever before in the House, advancing out of the Public Health Committee, but failed to advance out of the Judiciary Committee

Each speaker on the panel had 15 minutes to outline their positions on MAID, followed by a question and answer section with questions from the audience. 

The first speaker, Thaddeus Pope, a law professor and bioethicist began by providing listeners with general data about MAID. 

In the failed Connecticut legislation, in order to qualify for MAID, the patient would have to be 21 years old, have decisional capacity and be diagnosed with a terminal illness. The patient also would have to be the one to administer the lethal prescription. 

Patients would have to pass multiple rounds of screening with a prescribing physician, a consulting and a mental health physician. Even after going through this meticulous process, Pope said, an estimated third of the patients would ultimately choose not to take the lethal prescriptions. 

Advocates for MAID argue that it provides “death with dignity,” Pope explained. With this logic, he explained, as the burden of terminally ill patients’ lives outweighs the benefits, they want to avoid excessive suffering by giving patients the agency to control the timing and manner of their deaths. 

Jules Good, a disabled activist and policy analyst, joined over Zoom with an opposing viewpoint. Good described the dangers of instituting MAID, which they call assisted suicide. 

“In a healthcare system with so many clear barriers for marginalized peoples, a policy of assisted suicide is inherently dangerous,” Good said. “Not being able to afford care, not being able to access care, should not be reasons that people are choosing to end their lives prematurely.” 

Good said they believe that normalizing assisted suicide allows a broken healthcare system to “escape culpability for its systemic failures” leading to many people ending their lives unnecessarily. 

Latham said he prefers the term physician-assisted suicide and echoed many concerns that Good raised about the practice. He began by comparing Belgium and the Netherlands’ standard for MAID of irremediable suffering to the proposed Connecticut bill’s stricter standard of being terminally ill — meaning that person is already dying. 

Latham also addressed common concerns applicable to Connecticut that he said many people had regarding the passing of MAID in Oregon, the first state to legalize the practice. He said that many people worried that MAID would incentivize the healthcare system to provide low-quality care to people with low income in Oregon, thereby eliminating “inconvenient patients.” 

“Exactly the opposite happened,” Lantham said. “The people that used these programs were overwhelmingly insured, white and educated.” 

After the panelists spoke for their allotted 15 minutes, organizer Lori Bruce facilitated a Q&A session for panelists to answer questions from the live and online audiences. Questions ranged from comparing MAID to other end-of-life options such as euthanasia and palliative sedation to concerns about potential loopholes or issues the Connecticut bill may pose. 

After the forum ended, Brittany Fleck, an in-person attendee, told the News she was surprised by the level of debate.  

“I was not expecting it [the forum] to be political at all,” Fleck said. She added that the discussion was “riveting” but that she didn’t expect it to be “as intense.” 

Joan Cavanagh, a member of Progressives Against Medical Assisted Suicide, said that she was disappointed the forum had two speakers in support of MAID and only one opposed. 

She shared emails with the News showing that Bruce initially agreed to have one speaker from Second Thoughts CT and one from Progressives Against Medical Assisted Suicide on the panel as well but withdrew the offer on Oct. 11. 

“At that point, it became even clearer that this was mainly a discussion to talk about how to make the bill “better” or more “acceptable” and thus more likely to pass, not the objective educational forum that was being claimed,” Cavanaugh told the News. 

When asked about the viewpoints of the forum’s speakers, Bruce disagreed with the characterization of the event as pro-MAID. She said the three speakers were chosen so that Pope could speak on national trends, Latham on international trends and ethics and Good as an opposition figure.

Panelists demonstrated open-mindedness to one another’s line of thinking. For instance, all panelists agreed that some kind of training — credentials, certification requirements or a training program — would help ensure the safe use of MAID. 

In 1994, Oregon approved Measure 16, a Death with Dignity Act ballot initiative, becoming the first U.S. state to legalize medical aid-in-dying.