Minnesota lawmakers heard passionate testimony Wednesday on both sides of a hotly disputed proposal to allow people with terminal illnesses to end their lives with the help of medical professionals.
Many Democrats in the Minnesota House back a bill allowing medically assisted suicide, a practice that’s been approved in eight other states and Washington, D.C. Assisted suicide has been legal in Oregon for more than 20 years, and lawmakers in other states, including Minnesota, have patterned similar proposals after Oregon’s law.
But some religious figures and Minnesota lawmakers, including a key GOP leader in the Senate, warn that giving people say over when to end their lives would be dangerous for vulnerable people who have disabilities or are suicidal.
More than 200 people from Minnesota and around the country packed an informational hearing of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, which could advance the proposal when the Legislature convenes next February. Testimony did not fall along clear partisan lines. Doctors on both sides of the issue, along with religious leaders and people with terminal illnesses and their families, took turns at the microphone and gave dueling opinions.
Marianne Turnbull of St. Paul, who has stage 4 ovarian cancer, testified that she is haunted by her mother’s suffering at the end of her life. She told lawmakers she wants the option to choose to die on her terms.
“I want to live as long as I can. I want the medical care that can ease my pain and allow me to be in relationship with my children, my family and my friends. But when the time comes, I want a good death. I want to die at home. I want to be surrounded by people who love me,” Turnbull said.
But another woman with a terminal illness diagnosis, Stephanie Packer, traveled from Orange, Calif., to tell lawmakers that there are unintended consequences of legalization. She has pulmonary fibrosis as a result of diffuse scleroderma.
After assisted deaths were legalized in California, Packer said her insurer told her several of her expensive medications were no longer covered. She said she asked what the cost would be for assisted suicide medication and was told her copay would be $1.20.
Insurance companies are not in the business of healing, Packer said, “So if there are other options out there to save them money, they are good businesspeople, and they are going to do it.”
Rep. Anne Neu, R-North Branch, said she had been contemplating that exact possibility — that insurance companies are the ones to benefit financially from this change.
Neu was one of many lawmakers who shared personal stories about the deaths of family and friends. Her husband, who had ALS and died, received love and care from his family until the end of his life, she said.
“How many people, in fear of being a burden on their families, make that decision to end their lives?” Neu asked.
Neu and other opponents of assisted-suicide legislation also raised concerns about the difficulty of predicting exactly how long someone has to live. The current bill would allow people to request the drugs if they have less than six months to live. Two health care providers would have to sign off on the lethal dose.
Backers of the bill pointed to the specter of needless end-of-life suffering. Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, shared how a close friend “withered away” from bone cancer. She said the woman was villainized because she wanted the pain to be over and died without options.
Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, chief sponsor of the bill, struck a Libertarian tone. “At the end of the day this is about the patient,” he said. “This is about what patients are going through and the government not telling them what they have to do and how they should live the end of their lives.”
Freiberg introduced the bill last year with 18 cosponsors. Five legislators sponsored the Senate version. Although the Legislature doesn’t reconvene until February, House members said they wanted to gather broad input on the issue this week. Health and Human Services Policy Chairwoman Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said any votes would require further debate in the House.
But it appears unlikely the bill will get a hearing in the Senate. Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, chairwoman of the Senate’s Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee, issued a statement saying suicide of any sort is tragic. People with mental illness or disabilities are “at the greatest risk of outside influence clouding their personal judgment,” she said, adding that the Legislature should focus on palliative care.
“If physician-assisted suicide becomes law, it may be easier for some to remind those with a high level of care that it is cheaper for them to die than to keep them alive,” Benson said. “ ... Physician-assisted suicide is a dangerous policy and we will not hear it in the Senate.”
Under current Minnesota law, those who assist a suicide can face felony charges. In 2015, a jury in Dakota County found the corporation Final Exit Network guilty of helping an Apple Valley woman end her life.
As the debate continues, the two sides even disagree about the terminology. Opponents at Wednesday’s hearing wore “no assisted suicide” stickers, while supporters argue the term “suicide” is not always accurate. They wore yellow stickers with the phrase “I support end-of-life options.”
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044