Colorado Assisted Suicide Bill Advances

     DENVER (CN) – In a close 6-5 vote, the Colorado House Judiciary committee passed a bill that would allow terminally ill patients the right to end their own lives.

The vote fell along party lines – the five Republicans on the committee, including state Reps. Yeulin Willett and Polly Lawrence, opposed the bill while all six Democrats, including bill sponsor Rep. Lois Court supported it. It was taken late Thursday night after ten hours of testimony.

A state Senate committee on Wednesday had rejected the Colorado End of Life Options Act when the three Republicans on a five-person committee voted against it.

The bill is sponsored by state Reps. Lois Court and Joann Ginal, and Sen. Michael Merrifield, all Democrats.

On Thursday, more than 100 Coloradans packed into a House committee hearing to speak to their representatives. The first proponent to speak, Ronald Halpern with Compassion and Choices, told the committee to consider cautiously the passionate arguments they were about to hear from opponents of the bill.

“I would like to caution that passion is not likely evidence,” Halpern said, referring to opponents’ claims that rates of elder abuse increased in Oregon since that state approved its Death With Dignity Act. Halpern said there was no indication that the two elements were causally linked.

“I could state that elder abuse rates have risen after Colorado legalized marijuana,” he said.

Oregon‘s law has been effect for 18 years, and there is not one instance of abuse. Most died at home, exactly where they wanted to. These laws work as intended. They prohibit euthanasia and mercy killings. Any pharmacist who is opposed can simply say no.

“Aid in dying provides peace of mind. A suicidal person wants to die. Terminally ill people want to live, but no longer can. Shouldn’t we have the freedom to choose how our lives will end?”

Probate attorney Skip Morgan opposed the bill, drawing from his experience in estate law.

“I am gravely concerned about this proposed act,” Morgan told the committee. “My years of experience tell me that the safeguards … are unenforceable.

“The requirement for two witness to witness the actual execution by the patient makes no intonation that those two have any idea of this patient,” Morgan. In some estate cases, he said, attorneys used random members of their staff to act as witnesses.

One of the witnesses to a patient’s assisted suicide would be allowed to be an heir under the House bill, Morgan said, which could involve “somebody with a claim, someone who may benefit from their death.”

“There is no requirement to witness the administrations of medication. There’s no requirement that this actually be documented.”

Morgan said that insurance companies could abuse the bill, as “the least expensive treatment is to put that patient to death.”

Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Republican, asked if the bill could promote elder abuse.

“Yes, I have seen that … in a number of the proceedings,” Morgan said. “I have seen a very subtle pressure put on these people. They see themselves as a burden. ‘Mom, I love you to death, but how much longer do you want to go on?'”

Retired physician Dr. John Lobitz argued passionately for the bill, citing his 30 years of practice in Oregon, before and after the state enacted its Death With Dignity Act.

“I have a perspective that many do not,” Lobitz said. “The Oregon act has performed very well. There’s been no evidence of abuse.”

Lobitz said that putting such bills into practice is seldom necessary.

“This applies to very few patients,” Lobitz said: Only 0.3 percent of the population face a terminal diagnosis.

“I never wrote a prescription for end-of-life medication, but I referred [my patients] to physicians who were skilled at counseling them. This is an art.”

As for Morgan’s concern that doctors might recommend end-of-life medication in the same conversation in which a patient is diagnosed, Lobitz said that this would be “very poor practice.”

He shared a personal experience in which a close friend asked him to witness his death.

“The calmest, most peaceful death I’d ever witnessed was a friend,” the doctor said. “He asked me to be present at the time of his death, surrounded by his family with music playing that he liked. It was beautiful.”

Lobitz’s mother was prescribed such medication after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and never used it, but liked the option of having the medication around.

“Having that prescription gave her a sense of control and peace,” Lobitz said.

Lobitz was asked to address the fail-safes that needed to come with the bill, including the need for keeping records of when patients took the medicine at home.

“In Oregon, those present at the time of the death are required to report it,” Lobitz said.

Margaret Dore, an attorney in Washington state, opposed the bill, which is similar to Washington‘s Death With Dignity Act.

“The law is deceptively written,” Dore said. “The term ‘aid in dying’ makes you trust this is for the dying. There’s no requirement that people be dying. The bill is sold as choice and control. It’s stacked against the person.”

Dore said the medication typically used is water-soluble, and could be “given to a patient without their consent.”

She said she’d had a client whose father was given the medication, and decided not to take it when he brought it home, but took it later when he was intoxicated.

“They’re sitting ducks,” Dore said.

The bill next heads to the Colorado House of Representatives.

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