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A national movement to allow terminally sick patients to end their lives opened up a divisive debate at the State Capitol on Wednesday over the government’s role in allowing people to control when and how they die.
The issue became so contentious that Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, abruptly withdrew the measure in a hearing that drew hundreds of people and hours of wrenching testimony.
Visibly disappointed, Eaton said that so many misunderstandings had arisen about the proposal that it was not ready for a vote. She added that the short legislative session left little time to correct the record, so she would try again next year.
“It’s an alternative when [patients’] agony becomes unbearable,” Eaton told the Senate panel that oversees health issues.
It was a grueling day for advocates of “aid in dying” — often referred to as doctor-assisted suicide — a cause that grew out of Oregon’s 1997 Death with Dignity Act. Similar legislation has spread to at least four other states and is under consideration in others. Eaton introduced the measure last year as the Minnesota Compassionate Care Act and has been holding listening sessions across the state to build support.
Making the case with her was Dan Diaz, who recalled how he and his late wife, Brittany Maynard, moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s law when the pain from her brain tumor became too agonizing. California passed a comparable law in 2014, after the circumstances of her death received national attention.
The question of how to spare people a drawn-out and painful death has particular resonance in Minnesota, where the population is aging and life expectancies are the highest in the continental United States.
Critics question the potential for abuse involving the elderly, mentally ill or disabled. They say it could pressure people to take their lives over worries about steep medical bills, inadequate access to treatment and being a burden on their families.
The issue has become a chief concern of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the state’s oldest and largest anti-abortion group. The group sent out an e-mail earlier in the week urging its 70,000 member families to pack the hearing. Its leaders argue that doctor-assisted suicide encourages more people to take their lives, and that passage of the law would threaten the lives of the vulnerable.
Eaton said the program would require doctors to determine that patients who request the lethal medication are acting voluntarily and are mentally sound. Doctors also would have to suggest alternatives and determine that the patient has less than six months to live before they could write a prescription for pills to end a life.
Thaddeus Mason Pope said most of the 32 people who died under the Oregon law last year were white and had a college degree.
“It’s not being foisted on minorities or on the vulnerable,” said Pope, who directs the Health Law Institute at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “Instead, it’s overwhelmingly used by educated, insured, white cancer patients.”
Kim Horton said her mother fought an agonizing battle with cancer “and the things that I had to see and do for her during her last week were the things she never wanted me to see … my last memories are of her unrecognizable and in unbelievable pain.”
She wants to have the choice to end her life if she ever finds herself in the same situation.
But Elizabeth Bakewicz said the measure “tells me I am a burden not worth bearing.” The 35-year-old recounted the pain and loss of dignity she felt after doctors diagnosed her with brain cancer and epilepsy — the seizures, the cocktail of medications, the loss of her dreams of being a public defender. They told her in 2009 that she had three to five years left.
“I’m no longer the independent, spirited lively girl I remember — and yes, some days I want to die,” said Bakewicz, her voice breaking. “We become better people when we bear each other’s burdens, not when we bury people because they are burdens.”
Dr. Cory Ingram questioned the right to “hastened death” when people don’t have the right to choose comprehensive medical care.
“Seriously ill people will be approved for hastened death and denied coverage for ongoing medical treatments. … I know there is a more humane option for caring for seriously ill and dying people,” Ingram said. “And in fact, this will serve as a barrier to better care.”
Another opponent, Kathy Ware, said the legislation sends the wrong message about people who are disabled and depend on others for care. She has a 21-year-old son, Kylen, who is mentally impaired and has cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
Ware said people seeking life-ending medication in Oregon have cited conditions shared by disabled people, such as being less able to engage in activities, losing dignity or losing control of bodily functions. The last reason particularly upset her.
“This one just sort of makes me angry,” Ware said. “My son has been diapered for 21 years. I don’t want that to be a reason why you go to a doctor to seek … assisted suicide.”
Sen. John Marty, a supporter of the bill, said he agreed with concerns about allowing lethal medication when some people still lack access to health care.
“I’m troubled by the fact that some people feel they’re a burden because of the expense,” said Marty, DFL-Roseville.
As evening closed in, Eaton acknowledged that the matter was too complicated, with too many open questions, to be resolved that day.
“I don’t want any kind of vote,” she told fellow senators. “We’re not ready for it … it’s abundantly clear.”
She said afterward that the GOP-controlled House had also not agreed to hear the bill. Though the proposal isn’t one that typically splits along party lines, Eaton said that it would be easier to pass if DFLers regained control of the House in November. She plans to file the bill again next year.