Some terminally ill patients would have the right to end their lives on their own terms under a proposal by DFL legislators.
A bill dubbed “The Minnesota Compassionate Care Act” is modeled after Oregon’s own 1997 Death with Dignity Act. It gives patients with less than six months to live the freedom to accelerate their imminent death. Patients must meet certain criteria, including being a Minnesota resident, having a terminal illness with less than six months to live, be age 18 or over and mentally competent. Its sponsor, Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, cites overwhelming support by Americans for aid in dying, including a 2014 Harris Poll, which found 75 percent support.
Eaton, who does not intend to push for the bill's passage this session, will testify before the Senate Committee on Health, Human Services and Housing at 5:30 p.m. Monday. Eaton filed the bill as a conversation starter, and will host listening sessions around the state this summer. After receiving public input, she intends to push the bill during the 2016 legislative session. Her motivation for sponsoring it was simple enough: Her own mother’s death.
“She would ask us to take her to the vet because they would treat her better than her doctor, because they would put her to sleep,” Eaton said. “She had what I would consider a calm, nice hospice, but she wanted out. She’d had enough.”
If the law passes, Minnesota would be the sixth state to authorize the practice after Oregon, Washington, Montana, New Mexico and Vermont. At least 17 states have introduced similar legislation. The bill already has opposition from groups like the Minnesota Family Council, which is expected to show up to Monday’s hearing wearing “No Assisted Suicide” stickers.
Dr. David Grube, medical director for Oregon-based Compassion & Choices, said the legislation holds up to legal challenges, though a number are still pending.
If approved by a doctor, a dying patient is given a barbiturate that they must take orally on their own. They fall asleep within minutes and stop breathing within an hour or two. The family and doctor cannot administer the medication. After 17 years, he said, the law works and is not ripe for abuse.
“These people are very sick,” he said. “They’re not ‘kinda’ sick.”
The law would not make exception for patients who are unable to take the medication, such as advanced ALS patients already paralyzed by the disease.
“It’s very sad, yes, but it’s not legal in Oregon,” he said.
Burnsville resident Pamela White watched both her parents suffer through debilitating terminal illnesses. Her father, Edward White, underwent invasive surgeries that left him weak, in pain and dependent, until he was hospitalized and life support was withdrawn.
“We realized we had made a mistake,” she said of pressuring their father to do anything to stay alive. “We had no idea of the agony my father would suffer until, unable to speak; he looked at us with pleading eyes and tore at his oxygen cord.”
They resolved that such a death would not happen again in her family until her mother, Evelyn White, was diagnosed with rapidly spreading bladder cancer, and couldn’t tolerate the chemotherapy. During one treatment, they looked into assistance in dying in Oregon, but it was only for residents. Her mother lost her independence and dignity, and “hated to be reduced to a sick and helpless rag doll,” White said.
After two angst-ridden months in hospice, Evelyn White died.
“This period is still like a nightmare to me. What remains is the fear that I too could be stuck with misery and suffering at the end of my life. I don’t want my family to feel guilt and hopelessness as I did.” She said. “Minnesotans deserve the freedom to die at home, at peace and on their own terms,” she said.
Eaton said that after the medical marijuana and same-sex marriage bills, she can’t predict which way the bill will go. Fellow DFL Sens. Scott Dibble, John Marty and Sandy Pappas have signed onto the bill, along with Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley.
Photo: Pamela White of Burnsville talks about her parents, Evelyn and Edward White, who died of painful terminal illnesses. With her are DFL Sens. Chris Eaton, Scott Dibble and John Marty.