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Westport's Meyer on assisted suicide: 'It's a choice issue'

Published 4:43 pm, Thursday, March 21, 2013
  • Bill Meyer, a longtime member of the Representative Town Meeting, testified Wednesday before the state General Assembly in support of proposed legislation that would permit assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Photo: File Photo / Westport News
    Bill Meyer, a longtime member of the Representative Town Meeting, testified Wednesday before the state General Assembly in support of proposed legislation that would permit assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Photo: File Photo

 

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The General Assembly is considering the difficult question of whether a dying person should be allowed to legally take his or her own life with the help of a doctor.

And prominent among the speakers at a Wednesday hearing in Hartford was Bill Meyer of Westport, a Representative Town Meeting member well known for his local civic activism, who also gained note more than two decades ago when he helped his terminally ill father commit suicide.

The assembly's Public Health Committee on Wednesday listened to hours of testimony -- mostly in opposition -- to a bill that would allow physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.

"This is a ticket to murder," said John Kelly, director of Second Thoughts, a Massachusetts group that last year helped defeat a similar law in the Bay State.

"This amounts to a government recommendation that sometimes death is the best answer. Doctors make mistakes. Under this bill, a diagnosis can become deadly," Kelly said.

Connecticut's bill proposes strict rules.

A terminally ill patient would have to submit a written request to their physician for life-ending medication and have less than six months to live. The patient also must be certified as mentally competent.

A pill would be prescribed and only the terminally ill patient could take the medication.

New Jersey and Vermont are now considering similar physician-assisted suicide bills, and Oregon, Montana and Washington state already have laws on their books.

While many speakers opposed the bill, there was support, perhaps most dramatically expressed by Meyer.

"In 1991, my father was 88 years old and had five cancer operations. He said, `I want you to help me take a life,' " said Meyer, who has told his story on "60 Minutes" and other news programs.

"My father's doctor said, `You have six months to live.' On July 23, 1991, I put a plastic bag over my father's head and the next day the police came and declared it a suicide," said Meyer, who has publicly described holding his father's hand while he died.

Meyer said his father loved life, but after numerous operations he did not want to face a slow, painful death. He told of his father's civic involvement in West Hartford, and how active and happy he had been.

Meyer was later charged by police with aiding in his father's death and was sentenced to two years of special probation.

"I think it's for a few people. It's a choice issue," Meyer testified. "My father's doctor said it's not for everyone. I have just as much respect for people who do not want to do this."

State Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, a sponsor of the bill, said the legislation is loaded with protections to make sure only the terminally ill person can make the decision.

"This is intended to have a great deal of safeguards and must have safeguards to be effective. This allows people to die with dignity and ensure a physician is never accused of aiding and abetting a murder. This is a tough bill, and we can make it even tougher," Meyer said.

Lenore Snowden, a Fairfield doctor, said assisted suicide is wrong and is often requested by lonely and depressed patients.

"Seeing a patient through this process is our duty as physicians. Bringing about an unnatural death is not," Snowden said.

"It is not of our purview to be given the green light by any entity to allow us to violate our Hippocratic Oath," said Michael Opalak, a Bridgeport doctor.

Still, the Rev. Joshua Pawelek, of the Unitarian Universalist Society in East Manchester, said the bill would provide terminally ill patients with an option.

"The heart of the matter is, providing aid in dying under the strict conditions contained in this bill preserves human dignity," Pawelek said.

"I am 58 years old and I have Lou Gehrig's disease," Sara Meyers told the committee.

"It is killing me right now, piece by piece. This appearance will take me several days to recover from. But it's worth it and I want to see this bill passed, whether I use it or not," Meyers said.

Tory Lamore, a New Britain resident, saw it differently.

"There is no dignity in state-sanctioned suicide. Surely, we are capable of more. To give up on any person in this way, rather than provide the necessary support to cope with the array of end-of-life issues, is profoundly sad and disturbing," Lamore said.

"There are plenty of people who outlive a six-month life expectancy," said Gregory Wilmot of Pomfret.

"The former pastor of my church was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer and given a year and a half to live. He had the surgery, declined chemotherapy or radiation, and lived almost six more years. I do not support physician-assisted suicide in any way," Wilmot said.