Minnesota’s proposed “Compassionate Care Act” would allow persons with terminal illnesses to obtain medication and end their lives if a number of criteria could be met. Several advocacy groups contend that if passed, the measure would give people more control over end-of-life decisions and end suffering.
But others, including some disability rights groups, faith leaders and physicians, argue that legalizing the right to die creates a slippery slope of moral, legal and ethical issues. The two sides are already squaring off over the bill as the 2016 Minnesota Legislature gears up for a March 8 start.
Sen. Chris Eaton (DFL-Brooklyn Center) is leading efforts to get the bill passed. She and other bill coauthors are holding forums to discuss the legislation. More than 100 people filled a Senate Office Building hearing room January 30 to hear about the bill and debate its merits.
Right-to-die legislation isn’t new in Minnesota, and was introduced in 2015. Eaton said she doesn’t have the votes to get the measure passed this session, but wants to continue to gather input and see what the public thinks. She and others said it could take years to get a measure passed. Her hope this session is to get the bill through the Senate health and human services policy committee. That would set the stage for continued work in 2017.
“This bill allows terminally ill patients to be put in control of their medical options,” Eaton said. “They can decide when enough is enough.”
Eaton is drawing on personal experience with a terminally ill family member, as well as her decades as a mental health nurse in leading efforts on the bill. She said it is a difficult issue with many aspects to balance. The bill, while meant to end the suffering of persons with terminal illness, isn’t euthanasia or assisted suicide. She said it contains several measures to prevent abuse by family members.
Several states are considering or have similar laws. Oregon has had right-to-die legislation since 1997. Washington, Montana, Vermont and California have adopted laws in recent years. Right-to-die law in New Mexico was adopted in 2014 but is facing a court challenge.
About two dozen people at the forum testified on the bill, with some saying they or family members suffer with terminal illness. They described wrenching pain, the difficulty of watching loved ones suffer and high costs of treatment. Some said a right-to-die law is a basic human right.
“I have stage four cancer,” one woman said. While she has considered going to Oregon to die, “my family is here.” Others told stories of family members who wanted to die with dignity.
Doctors and faith leaders who spoke were deeply divided on the issue, with some speaking for the right to end suffering and others saying the proposal is flawed. How large medical systems would act if the bill passed was one of many concerns raised. One doctor questioned if that would force hard choices for terminally ill patients.
“Don’t force doctors to participate in a culture of death,” said one man. “The medical system is not infallible.” Others opposed the bill on religious grounds.
Under the proposal, terminally ill patients with less than six months to live would be assessed by two doctors. The patients would have to be of sound mind. Patients would be briefed on palliative and end-of-life care options. If the physicians determine that a patient is eligible for the right-to-die option and that there is no coercion involved, the patient could then be given medication with which to end his life. The process requires at least two witnesses, including one disinterested party.
If the doctors disagree a comprehensive mental health evaluation of the patient would be required. “No one makes the decision for them,” said Eaton. The patient would have to be able to take the medication himself, orally or through a feeding tube. Patients could obtain medication but then not take it.
Statistics from Oregon show that between 1997 and Rights to die arguments – from p. 1 2014 about 860 people have used the law to end their lives. Ninety percent were in hospice care, with 78 percent battling cancer. More than 90 percent said they chose the option because of loss of personal autonomy.
If a terminally ill person has dementia, schizophrenia, major depression or cognitive condition, he couldn’t use the right-to-die option, said Dr. David Plimpton, a retired internist who supports the bill. “It’s a very difficult issue. You have to have full capacity to make this choice.”
Eaton said that while she sympathizes with person who have terminal illness on top of a cognitive condition, “I have found that I am not comfortable opening this issue up any further.”
Want to learn more about the issue? Many groups, pro and con, have information available online.
One advocacy group for the bill is Compassion and Choices. Read more at www.compassionandchoices.org/
The Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL) is one of the groups that objects to the bill. Read more here.