Proponents of End of Life Options bill argue for compassionate choices

Composite image, St. George News / Cedar City News

ST. GEORGE — When it comes to dying from a terminal illness, Utahns are largely divided as to the path those final days should take. For the third consecutive year, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck has brought a bill to the Utah Legislature that would allow patients to end their own life.

I feel very strongly that this needs to be the patient’s choice, the patient’s prerogative,” Chavez-Houck told St. George News in a previous interview, “and they first and foremost need to be the ones determining what their fate is.”

If passed, the End of Life Options Act designated as House Bill 76 in the 2017 general session, would allow a mentally competent adult resident of Utah with an irreversible, incurable disease and less than six months to live the choice to seek a lethal dose of drugs to end their life.

The proposed act requires two separate requests for the medication separated by 15 days with a second physician opinion, and the patient must be counseled on all possible treatment options and disability resources. Additionally, the patient must be able to administer the medication themself, as opposed to physician-assisted.

Status of death with dignity statutes. Dark blue reflects states with current statutes, light blue reflects states where it is legal by court decision, pink reflects states considering legislation in 2017 and orange represents states with no legislative activity this year, Feb. 2, 2017 | Image courtesy of DeathWithDignity.org, St. George News / Cedar City News | Click to enlarge

According to DeathWithDignity.org, five states currently have statutes allowing physician aid in dying: California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Colorado was the most recent addition, with voters approving its Proposition 106 in November 2016 to enact the End of Life Options Act.

In addition to those five states, while there is no specific statute in Montana, according to Death With Dignity, in 2009 the state Supreme Court ruled that “nothing in the state law prohibited a physician from honoring a terminally ill, mentally competent patient’s request by prescribing medication to hasten the patient’s death.”

Including Utah, 21 states are considering their own statutes this year. That number is up from 13 states in 2016.

Chavez-Houck said she largely attributes this to continuing momentum on the movement. She said:

You keep it in people’s radar, and as more and more patients feel comfortable speaking out, and the more that families and others that support it, some are becoming more comfortable saying, ‘Yeah, this is something I believe I should have the option to utilize. Whereas I think before, maybe people thought, ‘If I step out, if I say something, I’ll be the only one.’ … The more we get the public stepping forward, especially those from the LDS and Catholic faith, who say, ‘This isn’t the stance of my church, but this is how I feel as an individual,’ … that continues to bring the discussion forward.

At the Health and Human Services Committee hearing in 2016 when Chavez-Houck’s previous version of the bill was discussed, Jean Hill with the Catholic Diocese spoke against it.

“Our position is very simple,” Hill said. “Government shouldn’t kill nor should government encourage others to kill themselves or other people.”

While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wasn’t officially represented at the hearing, the church had already released a statement of opposition.

One member of the clergy who spoke in favor of the bill was Rev. Tom Goldsmith with the First Unitarian Church. Goldsmith said they were there to contemplate a “very difficult issue.” However, he said, the issue wasn’t death itself.

“The dimensions that need to be contemplated by this committee that will hopefully be approved by the House is the way that we exit that this beautiful and blessed life of ours,” he said. “We’re talking about a rather extreme situation, and that is suffering, either suffering oneself or being in total distress as a family member watching a dear family member go through this suffering. If you have not had that experience first hand, please put yourself in that situation.”

However, while Goldsmith speculated that the question was perhaps rhetorical for many members of the committee, the common thread that seemed to connect those on both sides of the issue who spoke at the hearing was that they had gone through, or were going through, the situation Goldsmith brought up.

And both sides said these experiences color their opinions on Chavez-Houck’s proposed legislation. This included Hill, who said she watched her sister die of cancer and believed there was value in the process of going through that experience.

Others who spoke against the bill included Citizens for Strong Families representative Maryann Christensen, who said she believes this would fracture families that wouldn’t be able to come to an agreement that it should be a viable option.

Justin Romney said it would alter the way medicine is practiced, citing a study from Physicians for Compassionate Care that reported 58 percent of doctors experienced discomfort following assisted suicide.

Deanna Holland of Pro-Life Utah said lawmakers should be cautious about such legislation, citing similar legislation in Europe where lawmakers saw their original intentions morph into something more severe.

“What we pass today seems compassionate … (but) once you get down this path, it’s extremely hard to turn back,” she said.

Speaking in favor of the bill were representatives from the University of Utah School of Medicine, Libertas Institute, League of Women Voters, Utah Commission on Aging, Legislative Coalition for People with Disabilities and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

Other proponents were people with terminal illnesses themselves, including Carrie Snyder, who had been diagnosed with cancer. She said:

Death is a grand moment. To be fully aware in that moment is all we are asking. With the passing of this bill, my kind of death doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out and frightening process. The actual act of dying can be brief and can also be one of the most peaceful meaningful moments in our lives. Wouldn’t it be just and profound to be surrounded by your friends and family, saying final farewells, a parting joke, share some laughter and tears, take your last bit of medicine and curl up with your beloved dog, for whom society has already granted this simple right?

At the end of January 2017, Snyder died at the age of 53. Chavez-Houck said Snyder never wavered from her position regarding having to take “the pathway she was forced.”

She felt disenfranchised by her government impeding her ability to hasten her death, to have that prerogative.”

In 2016, Chavez-Houck’s bill was referred to interim study by the Health and Human Services Committee. However, as this was the second time such an action had been taken with her legislation, she said she hoped this time an actual discussion would take place, as other issues had taken priority following the previous recommendation. She was granted that discussion over the summer.

Committee members were able to hear from Dan Diaz, the widower of Brittany Maynard, the California woman who made headlines in 2014 when she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and moved to Oregon to end her own life.

“That was really helpful because it put a face to the cause of someone who has actually been through the process,” Chavez-Houck said.

Additionally, she said, the month of July was almost entirely dedicated to the issue, with further comments from those who supported and opposed it. However, she said she was disheartened that while her colleagues listened very carefully, they didn’t ask a lot of questions of the experts related to the clinical aspects.

“It seems to me that people … are really looking at this from a very emotional point of view and their own perspective versus the data,” she said. “And it’s frustrating. I really wanted them to have an opportunity to ask some logistical questions, some operational, clinical questions – especially the physicians that are on the committee – but that prerogative wasn’t exercised by anyone on the committee.”

Chavez-Houck said her bill is scheduled to be heard again by the Health and Human Services Committee next week. However, even if it is given a favorable recommendation, it will face opposition from some Southern Utah representatives.

Rep. John Westwood, District 72, said in an email to St. George News that he is initially against the legislation “for the fact that I have not fully studied or researched the bill.”

However, Westwood said he looks forward to committee discussions regarding issues of oversight, administration of drugs and family or guardian consent.

Rep. Jon Stanard, District 62, also said he has yet to hear all of the arguments but that he views this legislation much as he does the issue of medical marijuana.

“It’s hard when people are in a situation where they are suffering to not want to try to help people with what they feel like would give them some relief,” he said. “But then there are some very very deep, cautious and careful downsides that come along with it. … I imagine I would have a hard time ever supporting it.”

Stanard has also had experiences with family members with serious illnesses, he said. His father-in-law struggled and suffered at the end of his life, although Stanard said the circumstances probably wouldn’t have qualified his father-in-law under Chavez-Houck’s bill.

However, a little less than two years ago, Stanard’s own father was diagnosed with stage IVC thyroid cancer and given three weeks to live. His father is still struggling, he said, but is beating the cancer. However, seeking these types of options was never a discussion they had, he said, even at times when they didn’t know if his father would live through the day.

It’s not something we would ever have got or sought at that point,” he said. “I completely acknowledge the difficulty of somebody who has to be in that situation, and it’s one of those where you have to say until you are literally in that point, it’s hard to know how you would feel or what you would do.”

HB 76 End of Life Options Act is currently awaiting a hearing by the Health and Human Services Committee. Chavez-Houck said that while there aren’t any changes from the 2016 to 2017 version of the bill, she would be open to compromise on certain areas of the legislation, including a 10-year sunset on the law or additional reporting requirements.

“But I have to get to a space where people are actually compromising with me in good faith, that I will see them moving toward supporting the bill if we made those additions and made some changes,” she said, “versus my proactively adding those changes when I don’t know whether I have that kind of support.”

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Posted in Government, Local, News, Utah Legislature 2017Tagged , , , , ,

1 Comment

  • Kimi February 3, 2017 at 6:01 am

    My life = my choice
    I completely agree w/ Carrie Snyder. Death should how we want it to be …
    A sacred moment….
    Keep your ideological religion(s) to yourself.

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