‘Death with dignity’ bill draws Ige’s endorsement, passionate testimony

  • Gov. David Ige

Gov. David Ige is supporting a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to end their own lives if they choose.

House Bill 2739, also known as the Our Care, Our Choice Act, would establish a regulatory process wherein state residents with six months or less to live could obtain a prescription for medication that would end their lives.

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“It’s time for this bill to become law,” Ige said Tuesday. “Mentally competent, terminally ill people who are in pain and who are suffering should be given the choice to end their lives with grace, dignity and peace. I would be proud and honored to sign this bill into law if our state legislators pass this measure this session.”

According to the text of the bill, 30 states either enacted or considered enacting similar bills, commonly referred to as “death with dignity” bills, which allow dying residents to end their suffering if the process of dying is intolerably painful.

“Hawaii patients who are terminally ill and mentally capable currently have limited options to end their suffering if the dying process becomes unbearable,” the bill reads. “Palliative care, VSED (voluntarily stopping eating and drinking), or stopping artificial ventilation or other life-sustaining therapy to advance the dying process are all options a dying individual can choose. However, physicians do not always offer these options to their patients, and more importantly, these options do not always result in a quick or peaceful death.

“Advances in technology mean that the process of dying can be extended even when no cure or likelihood of successful medical intervention exists. This can often result in terminally ill patients undergoing unremitting pain, discomfort, and an irreversible reduction in their quality of life in their final days.”

In order to receive medication, the patient first would need to be confirmed to have a terminal illness that likely will be fatal within six months by two health care providers. The patient then would be required to submit two oral requests — made at least 15 days apart — and one written request before the process can begin.

Two witnesses — at least one of whom would not be a family member or beneficiary of the patient’s will — would be required to attest to the patient’s sound state of mind, while the patient’s attending physician would be required to ensure the patient makes an informed decision.

After the final request, a 48-hour waiting period would be mandatory before the prescription would be written. Patients also would be able to rescind their request at any time before the final procedure.

The bill also permits health care providers to refuse to provide medication as a matter of policy, as well as prohibit other providers from conducting end-of-life procedures on their premises.

Furthermore, anybody who alters or forges requests for prescriptions — or conceals the rescission of such a request — would be guilty of a Class A felony.

The bill has proven contentious.

During a joint hearing Tuesday by the House committees on Health and Human Services and the Judiciary, 100 residents and physicians testified, with 600 others submitting more than 1,300 pages of written testimony.

Hilo resident Vicki Stoddard voiced her support for the measure.

“I fell down out on Hilo’s beautiful Coconut Island during a sunny exercise walk with my girlfriend,” Stoddard wrote. “For half an hour I had a full-body seizure. I was diagnosed with brain cancer and given 8 months to 2 1/2 years to live. For over a year, I mistakenly believed that in our state I could have medical aid in dying. This created a powerful safety net for me.

“Reaching out to you with my own hand, I ask of you personally, please help me,” Stoddard concluded. “Please make that safety net real. Please help all of us facing fatal illnesses be able to live with more courage, relief, and joy.”

Other supporters of the bill shared similar stories, many of them family members or health care workers with firsthand experience with the terminally ill.

Another Hilo resident, Theodore Aughe, was less supportive, arguing that the bill’s wording can be construed as endorsing euthanasia instead of physician-assisted suicide.

“This gives license to attending physicians to administer the lethal drugs when their patients are unable to do so as a result of their illness,” Aughe wrote. “This is not physician-assisted suicide; this is physicians committing homicide. This is euthanasia.”

Other opponents of the bill warned that the system could lead to the deaths of non-terminally ill people, and some opposed the bill on religious grounds, calling for lawmakers to uphold the sanctity of life.

The state departments of Health and the Attorney General testified in support of the bill, as did the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s LGBT Caucus, the ACLU of Hawaii and the Hawaii Psychological Association.

Organizations in opposition to the bill included the Roman Catholic Church, the Honolulu Republican Party and the Hawaii Family Forum.

The bill’s co-sponsors included Rep. Chris Todd, D-Hilo, and Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-North Kona, as well as seven other lawmakers.

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The House Health and Human Services and Judiciary committees will vote on the bill today.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.