February 26, 2021

‘I Don’t Want to Wake Up Anymore’ – Constituent Stories Inspire Senator Haskell to Co-Sponsor Dignity in Dying

For the eighth time since 2013, the Public Health Committee held a public hearing today to discuss legislation permitting individuals with terminal illness diagnoses to pursue dignity in death. As a member of the Public Health Committee, State Senator Will Haskell (D-Westport) heard emotional testimony from his constituents. Should the legislation be approved, it would allow terminally ill adults with less than six months to live to voluntarily request aid in dying, a process by which they could receive medical assistance to end their lives in a manner of their choosing.

House Bill No. 6425, “An Act Concerning Aid in Dying for Terminally Ill Patients,” would establish strict protections to ensure that this option remains entirely voluntary and is only available to adults who are of sound mind and come to the decision on their own. They would be required to make three total requests to their physician, two verbal and one written, with at least 15 days between them and with multiple witnesses, and they could rescind their request at any time. If they choose to move forward and receive approval through all steps of the process, the individual would then be allowed to receive medication that would end their life.

“The stories I’ve heard will keep me up at night. With courageous candor, my constituents have shared what it is like to be forced to live with the knowledge of their impending deaths, and also the crushing physical and emotional pain of that final chapter,” said Sen. Haskell. “I’ve decided to co-sponsor this legislation, because I believe these patients should have the right to live their final days in a manner of their choosing. In looking to other states, we know that this can be done in a way that promotes safety, autonomy and dignity for all.”

Among the many constituents who testified in favor of House Bill 6425 is James Naughton of Weston, who told the story of his wife, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and battled it valiantly for four years. “When she couldn’t endure it any longer, and was finally at the end of my life, she said to me, ‘Jimmy, I don’t want to wake up anymore.'” Naughton said his wife wanted to die, after all she faced, and he had no ability to help her.

“We’re all going to die – painlessly, we hope, surrounded by loved ones in our storybook mind’s eye,” Naughton said. “But there are those among us who are not so lucky. And it’s for those people that this law is necessary – the folks who don’t go gently, and for their families, their loved ones, who witness the suffering, and are forever changed, damaged by the shared experience.”

“Two years ago I testified before this committee that my husband, Dave Murray, had only one wish when he was stricken with end-stage cancer: to have agency over the time and place of his own death,” said Deborah Howland-Murray of Westport. “Each religion has its own tenets and laws, yet our Constitution prohibits any religion from mandating its beliefs to govern the general population,” she continued, opposing religious-based arguments against the legislation. “I would never support taking away their right to die according to their own beliefs, and ask only that they do not impose those beliefs on me… The result of each year that we fail to move this bill to the peoples’ representatives is days upon days of unnecessary and inhumane suffering.”

Speaking of a beloved friend who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57, Lawrence Weisman of Westport said she was unable to receive treatment and “spent the last several months of her life suffering, in pain, constantly nauseated and reliant upon opiates. Inasmuch as our friend was living with the certainty of imminent death, all of the suffering and pain which she and her family endured could have been avoided had she been entitled to end her life as she wanted to do in a timely and compassionate way.”

“This is, I am certain, a familiar story, and to deny those who find themselves in this situation the option to die as and when they prefer comes close to inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on top of unavoidable tragedy. None of us was able to say when or how to be born, but we all should have the right to say when and how we die,” Weisman said.

“H.B. 6425 provides protections for both the patient and the health care provider,” said Donald Roth of Westport. “The option of medical aid in dying is completely options; no one can be forced to use it, and at least two doctors must be consulted.” “This is an issue that is personal to me,” he added, noting the COVID-19 pandemic “has exposed many of the vulnerabilities in our healthcare system, and this is one way to ensure every person in Connecticut can choose a peaceful end of life on their own terms.”

Nine states currently have dignity in death laws, with Oregon’s perhaps being the most notable. In 2019, according to Oregon’s annual report, 290 people received prescriptions through the program and 188 chose to end their lives. Of the individuals who chose to receive prescriptions, 75 percent were over the age of 65. Their diagnoses differed; 68 percent had cancer, with another 14 percent having neurological disease and 7 percent with respiratory disease. They largely reported loss of ability to participate in activities making life enjoyable, loss of autonomy and loss of dignity, and 89 percent lived in hospice settings. That 102 people, 35 percent of applicants, chose not to take their medication further speaks to the voluntary nature of the program.