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Utah lawmakers got their first taste Thursday of an emotional debate coming their way: a proposal for physician-assisted suicide.
The House Health and Human Services Committee voted to send HB391, the Death with Dignity Act, for further study during an interim session.
Sponsor Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said she got what she wanted: "to get this discussion started."
A mother who lost her 21-year-old son a month ago was among those testifying.
Eric Oligario had been in kidney failure for years, and finally determined he was never going to get better. He stopped dialysis, and died a week later after intense suffering that hospice doctors were not able to control with paid medication, Melissa Oligario said.
He longed to take a pill that would allow him to die quietly, his mother said. "'I just want to die. I just want to die,'" she quoted her son as saying.
Allowing a physician to prescribe medications that can speed death would allow "a peaceful and dignified way to die for everyone involved," she said.
HB391 would have let patients with terminal or "intractable and unbearable" diseases ask doctors to help them die.
Patients would have to sign written requests for the assistance. Doctors would assess each patient physically and to ensure they are making the request voluntarily. Eventually, a doctor would write a prescription for lethal medication, but the patient would administer it.
No physician could be punished for refusing to participate, according to the bill.
Denese Lawrence described how her sister-in-law drank a lethal liquid prescribed by a doctor to end her life after 12 years of cancer and contrasted that with the death of her 94-year-old mother, who had dementia. "I spent a week with no sleep watching her die and I would never want to do that again," Lawrence said.
But Kristina Eberle of United Families International said diagnostic errors might lead some who are not dying to take their own lives, and others might only want to end their lives for the sake of their families.
"The law is a teacher," she said, and the Death with Dignity law would imply "that a person's life is less important if they are not healthy."
Jean Hill, government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, opposed the bill on sanctity-of-life grounds.
In a state with such high suicide rates, why would government want to send a message that any suicide is OK? she asked.
Most doctors don't give months-to-live diagnoses as the bill specifies because they're often wrong, she said.
"Natural death is a humane and dignified process, even when it's messy," Hill said.
The Utah Medical Association and Utah Psychiatric Association have not yet taken a position on physician-assisted suicide, said Louis Moench, a psychiatrist speaking for both.
However, he said, "We're all familiar with suicide by cop. We would not like this to be suicide by doc."
Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, said he learned early on in his career as a physician that it's a complex issue. As a resident, he was accused of euthanasia when he was only trying to ease the patient's pain, he said.
"This is something that's going to take a lot of discussion," said Redd. "It's not something that can simply be dealt with in 15 minutes."