Minnesota lawmakers will hear disputed assisted suicide bill

A woman with terminal cancer will tell her story Wednesday before a Minnesota House committee considering a bill that would allow adults with less than six months to live to obtain medication to end their lives on their own terms.

The bill is patterned after an Oregon law that has been in effect for over 20 years and has spread to seven other states plus the District of Columbia. A court ruling last month made New Jersey the latest state. Advocates say New York could soon follow suit, although a bill there failed to pass this year. But the idea faces tough opposition from the Catholic Church and allied groups that see the practice as a violation of the sanctity of life. The medical community is divided.

Marianne Turnbull, 61, of St. Paul, has been living with stage IV ovarian cancer since 2015. She said she plans to tell lawmakers that she wants to live as long as she can, but also that she wants the right to choose a peaceful death instead of enduring prolonged suffering.

“I don’t know if I would even use the medicine, but it would reduce my anxiety by so much if I just knew there was an option,” Turnbull said. “I’d really rather not spend the last time that I have in major medical care.”

Turnbull has already gone through two major surgeries and 12 rounds of chemotherapy. The retired clinical social worker for the St. Paul Public Schools system is hopeful about getting into an experimental clinical trial. But she also knows that the five-year survival rate is low at her advanced stage.

“I’m in year four,” she said.

Also testifying will be Barbara Coombs Lee, who helped draft Oregon’s law in the 1990s. She said it has led to a major improvement in end-of-life care there, while fears about abuse and coercion have not come true. A third of the patients who obtain the drugs die without choosing to use them, she said.

“People who want to access medical aid in dying in their terminal illness aren’t making a decision to die,” said Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices. “Their disease is taking their life. They have no choice about living or dying. Their death is imminent, and above all what they would like is some control over the timing of that death and how much suffering they’re made to bear before that death arrives.”

According to the Oregon Health Authority , 249 people obtained prescriptions under the state’s law in 2018. As of Jan. 22 this year, 168 of them had died after taking the prescribed drugs, including 11 who had received them in previous years. Of those who were prescribed the drugs, 79% were aged 65 or older and 63% had cancer.

The long-term trend has been upward. As of Jan. 22, 2,217 prescriptions had been written since the law took effect, and 1,459 people, or two-thirds of them, died from the drugs.

The practice is often referred to as physician-assisted suicide, a term that Coombs Lee considers offensive. She said her group prefers “medical aid in dying” because the patient takes the drugs themselves and thus remains in control. She said they believe the word suicide implies an irrational choice.

The opposition in Minnesota is led by the Minnesota Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, an umbrella group that includes the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the voice of the state’s Catholic bishops, and Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group. The coalition argues that government should promote better treatment and pain management instead.

While the bill is getting an informational hearing in a House committee that won’t take a vote, its prospects after that are uncertain. Its chief sponsor, Rep. Mike Freiberg, hopes for a formal hearing in the 2020 session. The Golden Valley Democrat acknowledged that some colleagues in the House Democratic majority may have problems with the proposal. And he concedes the chances are poor in the GOP-controlled Senate. But he said supporters want to get the discussion going.

The opponents include one of the Senate’s top Democrats, Minority Whip John Hoffman, of Champlin, who plans to testify against the bill. He said he doesn’t think it will get a Senate hearing at all. He said he fears that vulnerable elderly and disabled people could come under pressure to choose to end their lives once insurers with their eyes on the bottom line and health care bureaucrats become involved.

“I think people with disabilities should be pretty concerned,” Hoffman said.

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