Officials consider “aid-in-dying” policy for Minnesota

Officials consider

Jessie Bekker

Toward the end of her mother’s life, Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, watched her suffer.
 
“A couple months before she passed away, [she] asked us to take her to the vet because ‘They treat the dogs better than me,’ is what she said,” Eaton recalled.
 
This session, Eaton introduced a new aid-in-dying bill called the Minnesota Compassionate Care Act of 2015 in hopes of making Minnesota the sixth state to offer terminally ill patients an out on their own terms — a regulation which has seen both support and opposition across the state, including at the University of Minnesota. 
 
While the bill was heard in a Senate committee last month, its circulation through the Legislature is just an effort to get lawmakers thinking about it.
 
Eaton said she wants to travel across the state this summer to discuss her bill with the public, and then present it to lawmakers again in next year’s legislative session.
 
“I think it’s becoming, finally, a discussion in the community, so I want to listen,” she said.
 
Under Eaton’s bill, patients would pass through a series of requirements before they’re eligible for the life-ending drug, including writing two requests over the course of a month and a psychological consultation to determine their mental health stability.
 
If a patient fulfills the requirements and is found capable of making the decision to die, which means they also can’t be depressed, they would be prescribed a barbiturate on which they can overdose, causing death.
 
Patients must be able to swallow the pill without aid or coercion, Eaton said.
 
The bill is modeled after Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act of 1997, said Janet Conn, president of Compassion and Choices of Minnesota, a nonprofit that promotes comfortable death and is partnered with Minnesota lawmakers on the bill.
 
In places like Oregon, where the law already exists, few people actually use the option once deemed eligible to do so, Conn said.
About 70 percent of residents in Oregon who received a prescription actually took the pill in 2014.
 
So far, five states have authorized aid-in-dying laws. Twenty-seven states, as well as Washington, D.C., are considering similar bills.
 
However, Kirk Allison, the director of the Program in Human Rights and Health in the University’s School of Public Health, said he thinks the bill would do more harm than good. 
 
Allison said the bill isn’t clear enough in saying that the physician would have to aid a patient in dying — an act he opposes. He said that fact should be more plainly stated in the bill.
 
Allison said he thinks the bill’s muddled language requires physicians to falsify death certificates, which he believes is wrong to ask of them. 
 
Instead of aid-in-dying, Allison said people should look to alternatives like palliative care or pain management toward the end of their lives.
 
Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, a nonprofit advocacy group, opposes the bill, citing concerns that an ill patient can be coerced into taking the drug, the group said in a press release. Scott Fischbach, the organization’s executive director, issued a statement on behalf of the group explaining its disapproval of the bill.
 
“Everyone deserves support and care, including the best palliative and hospice care,” he said. “Killing is not the solution.”
 
Dr. John Song, associate professor in the Medical School and the Center for Bioethics, said he supports the bill because it lets people choose how they die.
 
As a hospitalist at the University of Minnesota Medical Center who oversees patients near the end of their lives, Song spends much of his time helping patients find ways to make their last days comfortable and rewarding before moving on to hospice care.
 
He said Minnesota’s bill reflects a growing conversation about what he calls “a more realistic” look at death.
 
“The main [question] is whether you believe in this or not,” Song said, adding that he thinks the bill has a sound structure for providing patients the option to end their life on their terms.
 
If the bill becomes law, Song plans to present the option to his eligible patients and teach his students about its inner workings.
 
Eaton said she recognizes there are many fears surrounding death but said she wants to start a conversation among Minnesotans about how they can best approach the end of their lives.
 
“Most people are successful with palliative care and hospice, she said, “It’s the people who that doesn’t work for … [who benefit].”