HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - A push for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide is under way in at least three Northeastern states including Connecticut, where proponents say they see strong support for allowing doctors to prescribe mentally competent, dying individuals with the medications needed to take their own lives.
Lawmakers in New Jersey and Vermont are also considering legislation that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients in a trend that advocates say may be related to the country's aging population.
"The deep yearning for increasing autonomy for patients themselves to have a voice, I think now it's reaching a tipping point all across the world," said Barbara Coombs Lee, an Oregon resident and president of Compassion & Choices, a national end-of-life advocacy organization. "I think the Baby Boomer generation has something to do with that."
In Connecticut, which has banned the practice since 1969, a group of lawmakers said Tuesday that the legislature's first public hearing on the subject would likely be held later this month. At least two bills on the issue have so far been proposed in this year's session of the Connecticut legislature.
If the state's General Assembly votes to legalize the practice, it would be the first state legislature to do so.
Oregon and Washington have passed right-to-die laws, but they did so through voter referendums. Montana's Supreme Court has ruled that the practice of physicians helping terminally ill patients could be considered part of medical treatments. Thirty-four states prohibit assisted suicide outright. Seven others, including Massachusetts, banned it through legal precedent.
Opponents claim the initiatives in Connecticut are being pushed only by outside groups like Compassion & Choices.
"There's no grass-roots cry for assisted suicide in the state of Connecticut," said Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the socially conservative Family Institute. "This is mostly an out-of-state organization that has targeted the state of Connecticut. They look at the Northeast and think this is low-hanging fruit: 'We can conduct our social experiments here in the Northeastern United States.'"
A measure dubbed "end of life choices" recently sped through the Vermont Senate Health and Welfare Committee but is expected to face a bumpier ride in the Judiciary Committee. Meanwhile, a public hearing is planned for Thursday on a similar bill in New Jersey. That legislation would ultimately be subject to voter approval.
Last November, voters in Massachusetts narrowly defeated a measure legalizing physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Supporters of the concept said they hoped the debate would continue and marked the beginning of a conversation to improve end-of-life care.
In Connecticut, Dr. Gary Blick, a Norwalk physician who specializes in treating patients with HIV and AIDS, said he believes the time is right for state lawmakers to push ahead with this issue. In 2009, he and Dr. Ron Levine, of Greenwich, along with 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.
The 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.
Blick said not every dying patient will want the ability to take their own life, but he said they should be given the choice.
"This is not for everybody. We do realize there are people that do not believe in this for religious beliefs, and I respect that. There are no issues over that," he said. "But there are those subsets of people that do not want to go through the suffering that they have to go through."
Cathy Ludlum, of Manchester, a disabled-rights activist who has spinal muscular atrophy, said she is concerned the Public Health Committee has decided to hold the public hearing and worries the issue of doctor-assisted suicide will not go away soon.
"Until people are really educated about the issues, it's going to keep coming up, even if it's defeated this time," she said, adding how she wants lawmakers to focus more on "giving people a good life than giving people a good death."