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Should a terminally ill person be allowed to request a fatal drug?

The hearing room for the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee was at capacity Wednesday where several bills had informational hearings. Photo by Andrew VonBank

We’re all going to die at some point. But should someone have the right to decide when their time us up?

The question was not answered Wednesday.

The so-called “End-of-Life Options Act” was one of four bills heard, but not acted upon, by the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee at an emotional informational hearing.

“It’s a chance to give these bills the robust conversation they deserve,” said Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul), the committee chair. If any of the bills receive a hearing during the 2020 session, Moran said another “thorough round” of discussion would occur before action is taken.

Heard at the start was a bill related to ending one’s life.

Sponsored by Rep. Mike Freiberg (DFL-Golden Valley), HF2152 would allow a terminally ill adult who is expected to die within six months and is capable of making an informed decision to request and self-administer aid-in-dying medication. An advanced health care directive would not be sufficient.

“These are not people who want to die, these people are dying,” Freiberg said.

An attending health care provider, “who has primary responsibility for the patient's health care and treatment of the terminal illness,” would need to verify one’s ability to make an informed decision.

Rights should belong to the person who is dying, not the government or religion, said the Rev. Harlan Limpert, who leads the Minnesota Interfaith Clergy for End-of-Life Options.

“People simply want the option,” added Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices.  “… Terminally ill Minnesotans don’t deserve obstruction.”

Medically assisted suicide is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia.

In Colorado, 125 patients received prescriptions for aid-in-dying medications in 2018, a 74 percent increase from 2017. Voters there approved the end-of-life option in 2016.

Marianne Turnbull and Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, left, speak in support of a bill that would establish an end-of-life option for terminally ill adults. Photo by Andrew VonBank

Oregon has had such a law since 1997. Prescriptions have been written for 2,217 people since then with 1,459 patients dying from ingesting the medication. The number of recipients and deaths have steadily increased. In 2018, 249 people received prescriptions for lethal doses of medications, compared to 121 in 2013, 88 in 2008 and 68 in 2003. The number of people taking the medication in each year was between 60% and 70%.

In Minnesota, the bill could potentially help someone like Marianne Turnbull of St. Paul, who has been living with stage IV ovarian cancer since 2015 and doesn’t know how much time she has left.

“It’s very personal and urgent,” she said. The 61 year old wants a “good death” which, to her, means at home surrounded by loved ones. She spoke of negative and graphic things she’s heard could happen to her body and things she’s seen in others when their time on earth nears its end.

“I want the option to have this medicine on my nightstand. … When my death is imminent, I want that option,” Turnbull said.

Opponents argue legalizing so-called “physician-assisted suicide” promotes death, people could view this as cheaper option to receiving care, and better treatment and pain management should be promoted rather than making ending one’s life an option.

“Physical discomfort can be palliatively addressed,” said Dr. Neal Buddensiek, chief medical officer at Benedictine Health System. Prescribing a lethal prescription, he said, would be against his religious views.

Imam Asad Zaman testifies before the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee in opposition of a bill that would establish an end-of-life option for terminally ill adults. Photo by Andrew VonBank

Kathy Ware is a nurse whose son, Kylen, is “terminally disabled,” including having cerebral palsy.

She fears the bill would devalue people with a disability and could put such individuals in greater danger of abuse and coercion. “This bill says it’s better to be dead than disabled.”

“A truly compassionate response to the loneliness and suffering of the terminally ill would be to remind them of their worth and dignity as members of our human family, offer them state-of-the-art medical care, mental health care, and pain relief,” Janet Robert, president of Democrats for Life of Minnesota, wrote in a letter to the committee.

“Any law that pretends killing is healing puts the weak and most vulnerable patients at risk, and corrupts and degrades medicine. Doctors and medicine are supposed to help and heal, not kill,” added John Helmberger via letter. He is chief executive officer of the Minnesota Family Council.

Also submitting a letter against the bill was the Minnesota Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, a group of 40-plus organizations, including many religious and disability groups.

Of the bill’s 18 co-sponsors, zero are Republican.

Its companion, SF2286, is sponsored by a DFL member, Sen. Chris Eaton from Brooklyn Center; however, it has almost no chance of passage by the Republican-controlled Senate in 2020.

“Physician-assisted suicide is a dangerous policy and we will not hear it in the Senate,” Sen. Michelle Benson (R-Ham Lake) said in a statement. She chairs that body’s health committee.

The committee also heard, but took no action on:

  • HF1741, sponsored by Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River), to, in part, prohibit a health carrier from declining to provide, limit or discriminate in coverage to an enrollee based solely on the enrollee’s status as a living organ donor. It would also add leave for organ donation to current statute requiring up to 40 hours paid leave for bone marrow donation;
  • HF1247, sponsored by Rep. Dave Baker (R-Willmar), to designate the Lions Gift of Sight at the University of Minnesota as the eye bank to receive an anatomical gift of an eye or an eye part when the document of gift doesn’t designate a person to receive the eye; and
  • HF1400, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Morrison (DFL-Deephaven), which would establish a health care interpreter spoken language registry.


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