If she were fortunate, Sondra Astor Stave would pass away in her 90s after a useful day of activities. Memories of her life - travels to Lumpur and Borneo, the monkeys at her window in India, motherhood and grandchildren - would usher her into the afterlife.
But Sondra fears she’ll face a long, agonizing death, wracked with a terminal disease and the burden of being cared for by her family.
“If I can no longer make a contribution, and I become a liability to my family and community, I would prefer to exit,” said Stave, a 71-year-old Unitarian Universalist from Coventry.
Exiting for Stave means the legal right- to-die. On Wednesday, (March 20) she and her husband Bruce Stave, a retired history professor, were among hundreds who packed a Public Health Committee hearing at the state Capitol on a bill that would allow mentally competent patients with six months or less to live to end their lives with a doctor's prescription.
The controversial bill modeled after death with dignity laws in Oregon and Washington state has pitted several advocacy groups, the Catholic Church and the pro-life community against those who would choose when to die.
Similar right-to-die bills are being considered in Vermont and New Jersey, a trend Gary Blick, a Norwalk physician and supporter of the bill, sees as an aging population fears a suffering end.
"My healthy 91-year-old mother supports this bill. It puts another option on the table. It's not for everyone, not everyone will take it up," said Blick, who treats AIDS and HIV patients.
In fact, during Wednesday's hearing, many of the supporters of the bill were gray-haired seniors sporting buttons that read “My Life, My Choice, My Death.”
But detractors are concerned a right-to-die law would put people with disabilities and the elderly at risk for abuse. They are concerned with the proposed bill's language, specifically the lack of a waiting period that exist in the Oregon and Washington laws, and a required second opinion by a physician.
Eileen Bianchini, the director of the Connecticut Right to Life Corporation, thinks giving people the choice to take their own lives is anything but compassionate.
“It’s insensitive to patients, offering nothing but total abandonment and shortened lives,” she said.
Bianchini cited a case where doctors misdiagnosed an Oregon woman, Maryanne Clayton, who was told she had four months to live but lived to see the Grand Canyon and take a Caribbean cruise.
Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute, said the bill is just assisted suicide, which he sees as an attack on human life, masquerading as "compassionate aid in dying." He's accused Compassion & Choices, the Colorado-based group leading a grassroots effort in support of the bill, of trying to forward its liberal causes in the state and throughout the Northeast.
“There is no cry from average citizens for this kind of bill ” said Wolfgang, pointing to Massachusetts where voters last year defeated a death with dignity proposal.
Stephen Mendelsohn with Second Thoughts Connecticut, an advocacy group led by people with disabilities, fears a right-to-die law would shorten the lives of the elderly, disabled, and his own. A 51-year-old living with autism spectrum, vulnerable to bullying and prone to depression, he worries he might be persuaded to take a lethal prescription should he ever be terminally ill.
"Can this actually be described as a choice?" Mendelsohn asked.
Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion and Choices, said there is no evidence that right-to-die laws lead to abuse. She has said that less than 700 people in Oregon have self-administered the medication since the law passed 12 years ago.
Rev.Ted Tumicki, pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Jewett City, testified against the bill because he believes there aren't enough safeguards as the bill is written to prevent abuse of the law.
"Life is a gift and I don't believe we have a moral right to take that away," Tumicki said.
For Sandra Astor Stave the right-to-die controversy comes down to quality of life versus quantity of life.
"I welcome having something in the medicine chest just in case, “ she said.