SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers put on hold Thursday a legislative proposal that would have created a process to allow terminally ill Utahns to obtain prescription medication they could self-administer “for a humane and dignified death.”
After hearing emotional testimony on both sides on HB391, the proposed Utah Death with Dignity Act, the House Health and Human Services Committee voted to refer the issue to interim study.
Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan, said end-of-life care is a highly complicated issue.
“I’ve been there. I know what you’re talking about,” said Redd, who is a physician who has worked in hospice care.
He said he had administered medication to terminally ill patients to ease their pain knowing that the medications may shorten their lives because of the effects on their respiration. He also has witnessed people experience "unspeakable horrors" during the final hours of their lives, he said.
"This is not a small piece of information for the Legislature to cope with or deal with" as the session comes to a close, Redd said.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, said she viewed the legislation as a matter of "self-determination."
"In a state that so fiercely values self-determination, why we do not have this option in Utah?" she said.
The legislation, as drafted, contains a number of safeguards, she said.
Patients whose attending physicians have determined they are suffering from "a terminal disease or an intractable and unbearable illness" could sign a legal form declaring their choice to obtain prescription medication that could end their lives.
Two physicians would have to review and prescribe the drugs — with a 15-day waiting period before they could be administered. If either physician believed the patient has been coerced to sign the request or is not mentally competent, they can refuse to prescribe the medication and ask the patient to undergo a psychological evaluation.
If the physicians agree to prescribe the medication, "the patient must be able to self-administer the medication. No one else can assist," Chavez-Houck said.
Hospice nurses and family members of loved ones who experienced protracted and painful deaths urged lawmakers to create another option in state law. Others argued that Utah already leads the nation in suicide and such a law would give tacit approval to the taking of one's life.
Dr. Louis Moench, a psychiatrist with Intermountain Healthcare, said healthcare professionals are divided on HB391.
We can't determine if this is dying with dignity or assisted suicide.
–Dr. Louis Moench, a psychiatrist with Intermountain Healthcare
"We can't determine if this is dying with dignity or assisted suicide," he said.
Utah resident Denese Lawrence said she has witnessed both sides of the debate in recent months.
Her sister-in-law, who lives out of state and had suffered with cancer for several years, took her life by drinking medication. She spent the morning enjoying time with family and in the afternoon took medication to end her life. "Her brother, who is my husband, said, 'She just went to sleep.'"
Lawrence's own mother's last week of life in Utah, meanwhile, was painful and stressful for caregivers.
Jean Hill, representing the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said legislation that condones any form of suicide is "unwise state policy."
Hill said a physician told her sister that she had only six months to live but she went on to live six more years. Their family cherished every day of her life until her death, she said.
"A natural death is a dignified death," Hill said.