One of the most difficult challenges that confronts government is deciding where individual rights end and government interests begin. As a society we have decided to establish a legal separation between the rights and responsibilities of youth from adulthood. We expect our government to impose educational requirements and protect us by employing the use of regulations and licenses.
However, issues revolving around birth and death continue to be contentious because we cannot agree on where to draw the lines of responsibility and rights. We are all too familiar with the contention that surrounds the issue of abortion. However, what about the right of the individual to decide when he chooses to die? Reasonable people can agree that the state has a compelling interest to protect life. However, we should also be able to accept the compelling need to recognize the right of an individual suffering from a terminal illness to terminate life.
That debate should revolve around the issue of what conditions the state should impose. Eight states and the District of Columbia have already gone through the process of intense debate and were able to craft laws known as “medically assisted“ dying. These states resolved the conflict by imposing protections to prevent error and utilizing the expertise of the medical community.
This issue is now before the Minnesota Legislature. The authors of the legislation have stipulated the following conditions in order to ensure integrity:
First, there are strict eligibility requirements: Individuals must be adult residents of Minnesota, mentally capable of choosing this option, and diagnosed with a terminal illness that gives them six months or less to live. Advanced age or disability alone do not qualify anyone for medical aid in dying. Two doctors have to confirm eligibility and counsel the patient about all available treatment options, including hospice.
Second, the patient must request the medication both verbally and in writing, and they alone must choose whether to take the medication. No guardian, power of attorney or health care agent may act on behalf of the patient. The terminally ill may change their mind at any time.
Third, this medical practice is optional for both patients and physicians. No one is required to use it, no one can be compelled to take part in it.
House File 1358 provides us with a thoughtful approach that humanely and intelligently balances the rights of the individual with the interests of the state. It warrants broad discussion, including public legislative hearings and, in my opinion, passage. This sentiment is widely shared as demonstrated in a 2016 Greenberg Quinlan Rossner Research poll that found that 73% of Minnesotans are supportive of this type of legislation.
Under no circumstances should we permit this topic to become a political football. It is a sensitive subject that requires wisdom and compassion. For those of us in advanced age, it is a comfort to know that we have the right to make the decision of our passing with the appropriate safeguards.
Arne Carlson was governor of Minnesota from 1991 to 1999.