Physician-assisted suicide proposal fuels emotional testimony in St. Paul
Marianne Turnbull wants to be in control of how she dies.
ST. PAUL —Marianne Turnbull wants to be in control of how she dies.
The 61-year-old living with stage 4 ovarian cancer knows it's a matter of time before her disease takes her life. And she wants the option to die in her St. Paul home with minimal pain and suffering.
"I've been told I don't have much time," Turnbull said. "When the time comes, I want a good death. I want to die at home. I want to die surrounded by people who love me."
The former clinical social worker said she has had a dozen rounds of chemotherapy and two surgeries to combat her disease, and she has come to terms with the fact that it will likely kill her. And rather than dying in a hospital, full of tubes, she said she hoped state lawmakers would consider passing legislation to let her administer life-ending medication when she's ready.
Turnbull was among several chronically ill patients, advocates, physicians and faith leaders on Wednesday, Sept. 11, to ask state lawmakers to allow physicians to prescribe fatal doses of medication to terminally ill Minnesotans.
The bill would allow terminally ill people deemed to have less than six months to live and who are mentally competent to seek a fatal medication. Under the proposal, physicians who provide the medication would not be subject to penalties if they follow the prescribed requirements.
Two doctors would have to sign off on a patient's prognosis and mental competency before the medications could be prescribed. And the patient would have to administer the drugs him or herself.
The panel didn't take a vote on Wednesday but suggested the bill could again come up for consideration in 2020. And a key lawmaker in the Minnesota Senate said it wouldn't have a chance there.
Supporters said it was key to giving terminally ill Minnesotans control over their deaths while opponents said it poses a danger for people with disabilities and could financially incentivize ending a sick person's life.
Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized physician-assisted suicide. And Barbara Coombs Lee, who helped write Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law, said the law has improved end-of-life care in that state and one-third of those who are prescribed the drugs don't use them.
In Oregon, 249 people obtained life-ending prescriptions under the state's law in 2018, according to the state's health authority. And 168 of those individuals died after taking the drugs, as of January of this year. Eleven of those received the drugs before 2018.
The bulk of those who were prescribed the drugs were older adults with cancer. Seventy-nine percent of those who were prescribed the drugs were 65 or older, according to the Oregon Health Authority, and 63% had cancer.
The measure's opponents raised concerns about allowing physicians to prescribe fatal doses of medication when a person is deemed to have months left to live as those diagnoses can be inaccurate.
"We need to understand this point. Doctors are not God," Imam Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said. "They don’t get to decide who lives and who dies."
Kathy Ware, a nurse and advocate for people with disabilities, said she worried that the legislation could pose a danger to people with disabilities as they could be discriminated against and placed in danger if they don't have guardians or advocates. Among those she worried about was her son Kylen, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy and mental retardation.
"Kylen’s life has dignity, it has value and it has worth, and this bill bolsters bigotry in the medical profession toward people like Kylen," Ware said.
The bill's author, Rep. Mike Freiberg, D-Golden Valley, said the bill is crafted to prevent abuse of the option. And he disputed the moniker "physician-assisted suicide," instead describing the measure as medical aid in dying.
"These are not people who want to die. These are people who are dying," Freiberg said. "The Oregon experience shows that the concerns raised by those who oppose these bill simply have not come to pass."
While some lawmakers on the panel expressed support for the proposal, a key gatekeeper for the proposal said the measure wouldn't come up for consideration in the Republican-led Minnesota Senate, likely dooming its chances in the near future.
"Physician-assisted suicide is a dangerous policy and we will not hear it in the Senate," Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said in a statement.