DENVER – Colorado lawmakers Friday heard heart-wrenching, painful testimony from terminally ill people who were split about whether they should be allowed to request life-ending medication.
After an 11-hour hearing, the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee voted 8 to 5 to defeat the measure, with votes crossing party lines. The measure, described as “death with dignity,” would have offered a right to die to those with a terminal illness.
Throughout the day, dying Coloradans took to the front of a packed committee room to tell their stories. Some were too incapacitated to walk, rolling to the witness table in electric wheelchairs or staggering with the help of a walker.
Others were just in the beginning stages of their terminal illness, still strong and mobile, but looking ahead to the dark days in front of them.
The one constant in the testimony was the emotional nature of the stories. But opinions about the measure reflected a wide spectrum of perspective.
“My end-of-life decision should be mine – not the state of Colorado, not the church’s, nor any special industry or interest group,” said John Davis, a supporter of the bill, who is battling an advanced stage of kidney cancer – something very difficult to cure.
Fran Chapman, a Denver resident who spoke on behalf of her ill husband, Dan Chapman, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, said the bill was about liberty.
“If things do get worse, and they inevitably will, we’d certainly like to have more than one arrow in our quiver when that time comes,” Chapman said, with her husband sitting by her side, unable to present the full testimony on his own.
The bill – modeled after a similar law that took effect in Oregon in 1997 – was prescriptive, requiring that the drugs be self-administered by ingestion. Patients would need to be able to communicate health-care decisions to two separate physicians who determine if the person is about six months from death. Patients also would have needed to voluntarily request life-ending medication.
People would have needed to make a verbal request on two separate occasions and make a written, signed and witness-verified request.
The legislation also would have required a waiting period between the oral and written requests so a patient would have had time to contemplate his or her decision. Doctors also would have been required to refer patients to counseling in some cases.
There were fears that depression could have led to a hasty request for life-ending medication. But sponsors believed there were enough safeguards in the bill to prevent abuse.
“This is about an individual making a personal choice and having that opportunity, and if they choose not to do it because they live another two years, that’s wonderful,” said Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, one of the bill’s two sponsors in the House.
The measures’s other sponsor, Rep. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, said, “This is a personal freedom. It’s a personal and a difficult choice. Respect the wishes of competent people who have a right to choose the time and the manner of how they wish to end their life.”
But not all affected people agreed. Carrie Ann Lucas, an attorney who is the executive director of the Center for Rights of Parents with Disabilities, worried that insurance companies would use the law to push terminal patients toward life-ending medication, rather than incur the costs of treatment.
Lucas suffers from a progressive neuromuscular disease. She said without a ventilator, she would die in a matter of hours. The disease progresses throughout the body, affecting organs.
“The title of the bill is highly offensive in suggesting that my family and friends who have (died) were undignified because they did not choose suicide,” Lucas said.
Patricia Ziegler, assistant director for the Durango-based Southwest Center for Independence, a self-help center for people with disabilities, said she fears society views disabled people differently, which could have led to physicians making inappropriate decisions.
“I wonder, if we don’t give them credence in other areas of day-to-day life, will they get the proper consideration with this?” Ziegler asked.
Several lawmakers on the committee also expressed concerns, even very early on in the debate.
Rep. Jon Keyser, R-Morrison, said he worried about sending the wrong message.
“Colorado could potentially become known as a state ... that would enable suicide tourism,” he said.