“The idea had very substantial majority support among typical people,” says Lamm, now CEO of the Colorado Mesa University Foundation in Grand Junction. “It was working in Oregon. It seemed so logical that I thought it would be the law of the land in a decade.”
Her bill was promptly killed in committee — “I guess I was fooling myself.”
Some two decades later, on Feb. 6, the House Committee on Public Health Care and Human Services killed Rep. Lois Court’s Colorado Death with Dignity Act, despite a January Talmey-Drake poll that found 68 percent of voters supported it, with just 28 percent opposed. Two Democrats, including the committee chair, joined Republicans to kill the bill.
“It’s shocking,” Lamm says, “how unrepresentative government can be.”
Court’s office told me that the bill died not because of “philosophy,” but concerns about a lack of safeguards regarding life insurance. She decided to bring the bill back next year instead of amending it.
The bill required that patients make two oral requests, at least 15 days apart, and one written request for a prescription. Physicians would have to inform patients of the right to rescind their request after the second oral request, and the prescription could not be written until 48 hours after the written request was received. Ultimately, the patient would have to self-administer the medication with no assistance.
Oregon’s bill has worked extremely well for nearly two decades, providing peace of mind to patients who feared loss of autonomy (91.4 percent, according to one study), inability to enjoy life (88.9 percent) and loss of dignity (80.9 percent). Many patients said simply knowing they had the prescription was enough and through 2013, 752 of the 1,173 people who had received prescriptions (64 percent) chose to use them to end their lives. (See a summary of polls here.)
More than 100 witnesses spoke during the 11-hour committee hearing, about evenly divided between pro and con. Dozens of citizens told heart-rending stores of suffering and brutally prolonged death. Opponents, including disability rights activists flown in from out of state, insisted disabled people would be pressured to cut costs to insurers and families by killing themselves.
Yet that’s never happened in Oregon. And in 2007 the Journal of Medical Ethics reported that there was “no evidence of heightened risk for the elderly, women, the uninsured, people with low educational status, the poor, the physically disabled or chronically ill, minors, people with psychiatric illnesses including depression, or racial or ethnic minorities, compared with background populations” in Oregon or The Netherlands, where the practice is also legal.
As Dr. Charles Hamlin of Compassion and Choices told the committee, there”is not one case in this country (of a disabled person being coerced into suicide) nor will there be because of the nine hurdles in this law.”
Opponents also wrote numerous fevered letters to the editor. Two physicians wrote the Denver Post, “Any legislation that promotes physician assistance in a patient’s death undermines the integrity of the medical profession and devalues the person to a burden.”
That argument, as the English say, is bollocks — the law would not require any physician or patient to participate in such a decision. Don’t want a prescription? Don’t request one. Don’t want to write one? Then don’t.What opponents really want is to force their personal and religious beliefs down your throat with the government acting as their cop.
It may come a quarter-century later than Lamm first hoped, but thankfully, this wave is cresting in favor of individual liberty. Washington state and Vermont have joined Oregon in legalizing the practice. Courts have made it legal in Montana and Bernallillo County, New Mexico, while California and Connecticut courts are reviewing laws. Measures are pending in more than half the states.
“This is about individual liberty. Is this a decision for a person with a terminal illness to decide? Or should the government be able to say ‘You haven’t suffered long enough’?” Lamm says. “This is not a partisan issue.”