Trying to cash in on the widespread empathy generated by its media campaign featuring Brittany Maynard (the young woman with brain cancer who moved to Oregon last year to die using the Death with Dignity law), the assisted-suicide activist group Compassion & Choices (C&C) aided by the Death with Dignity National Center (DWDNC) is pushing hard for doctor-prescribed suicide legalization in a growing number of states.
Here is an update on 2015 developments by state:
Alaska: On February 9, Rep. Harriet Drummond introduced HB 99 (An act relating to the voluntary termination of life by terminally ill individuals), a bill patterned after Oregon’s law. Previously, a 1996 bill and a 1998 lawsuit to legalize assisted suicide in Alaska failed.
California: C&C is pulling out the stops in California, the only remaining West Coast state that has repeatedly rejected assisted-suicide measures. The activist group’s legalization campaign is two-fold. First, on January 20, Democratic Senators Bill Monning and Lois Wolk introduced SB 128 (End of Life Option Act). Based on the Oregon law, SB 128 would carve out an exception to California’s Penal Code 401 to grant doctors immunity from prosecution if they provide terminally-ill patients with a lethal drug prescription.
Since it could take up to two years for the legislature to act on the bill, Kathryn Tucker, C&C’s former legal director and now executive director of the Disability Rights Legal Center in Southern California, filed a lawsuit on behalf of two cancer patients and five doctors (two with cancer) to speed up the process. The suit argues that when a dying patient opts for “a peaceful death” it is not a “suicide,” so a doctor cannot violate the state’s assisted “suicide” law if they provide the patient with the means to end his or her life. The suit, Brody v. Harris, was filed in Superior Court (San Francisco) on February 11.
Colorado: On January 27, after weeks of C&C’s media hype, Colorado Reps. Lois Court and Joann Ginal and Sen. Lucia Guzmán introduced HB 15-1135 (The Colorado Death with Dignity Act), a virtual clone of Oregon’s law. After hearing 11 hours of testimony on February 6, members of the Public Health Care & Human Services Committee defeated the measure by a vote of 8-5, citing the bill’s lack of safeguards and inability to prevent abuse.
Connecticut: For the third year in a row, the Connecticut General Assembly is faced with an assisted-suicide bill. Proposed Bill 668 (An Act Providing a Medical Option of Compassionate Aid in Dying for Terminally-ill Adults) was introduced and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 23. On the same day, the state government announced massive budget cuts to services for people with disabilities—highlighting the danger SB 668 would pose to vulnerable patients, especially those with no or reduced support services.
Iowa: House File 65 (The Iowa Death with Dignity Act) was introduced and referred to the Human Resources Committee on January 21. The bill is sponsored by nine House Democrats. As yet, no hearing has been scheduled. A previous bill, HB 2425, was defeated in 2006.
Kansas: HB 2150 (Kansas Death with Dignity Act), patterned after the Oregon law, was introduced on January 28 and referred to the House Committee on Health & Human Services. As of this writing, no further action has been taken. In 2013, two similar measures, HB 2068 and HB 2108, died in committees.
Maine: No assisted-suicide bill has been introduced as yet this year, however, the Portland Press-Herald (2/23/15)reported that four state representatives and one senator are currently drafting one. Maine has been targeted by C&C and the DWDNC before: five bills (between 1995 and 2013) and a 2000 ballot initiative. All bills were defeated as was the initiative.
Maryland: Two companion Oregon-style bills, HB 1021 and SB 676, were introduced in February. They have a unique title: the “Richard E. Israel & Roger ‘Pip’ Moyer Death with Dignity Act.” Israel is a former legal counsel to the legislature, and Moyer, who died last year from Parkinson’s disease, was a Ward 1 alderman. Apparently the bills’ sponsors wanted to make the measures more personal for lawmakers by naming the bills after people legislators knew or at least recognized. But reportedly, even if a combined bill were to pass in the General Assembly, Gov. Larry Hogan would likely veto it. Hogan has been described as “a strong opponent of the ‘right to die.’” [Daily Caller, 2/3/15]
Massachusetts: HD 1674 (Massachusetts Compassionate Care for the Terminally Ill Act) was introduced by Rep. Louis Kafka, who also sponsored several previous prescribed-suicide bills. Modeled after the Oregon Law, HD 1674 contains serious loopholes that place patients at great risk. Massachusetts has a long history of failed assisted-suicide measures dating back to 1995. In 2012, an initiative similar to Kafka’s current bill was defeated by voters.
Missouri: Patterned after the Oregon law, HB 307 (Missouri Death with Dignity Act) was introduced by Rep. Kimberly Gardner and had its first reading on January 7, followed by a second reading on January 8. To date, the House website does not indicate if the bill has been referred to a committee, and it is currently not listed on the House calendar.
Montana: Since 2009, when the Montana Supreme Court ruled that there was no state statute or court ruling banning doctor-assisted suicide, legislators on both sides of the issue have been trying to pass bills to either expressly allow the practice and establish guidelines or to specifically prohibit the practice. All attempts prior to this year have been unsuccessful.
In 2015, three bills were introduced: SB 202 (Montana Death with Dignity Act, introduced January 21), HB 328 (An Act Providing That Consent to Physician Aid in Dying Is Not a Defense to the Charge of Homicide, introduced January 28), and HB 477 (An Act Revising Aiding or Soliciting Suicide Laws, introduced February 12). SB 202, which would have allowed assisted suicide, was heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 17 and subsequently tabled. HB 328, which would have made doctors criminally liable if they engaged in suicide assistance, was heard by the House Judiciary Committee on February 10 and passed, but then was voted down at its Second Reading on February 17. Only HB 477, which makes prescribed suicide against public policy, remains alive after being passed by the House Judiciary on February 20.
Nevada: Last year, two state senators announced that they were independently going to introduce Oregon-style bills in the next legislative session. Thus far, no bills have been introduced.
New Jersey: Modeled after the Oregon law, New Jersey’s companion bills A 2270 and S 382 (Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act) were introduced early last year. A 2270 was passed by the Assembly on November 13, 2014. A month later, S 382, passed out of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizen Committee, but without a recommendation for full Senate approval. The next step for the measure will be a Senate floor vote in 2015, which has not been scheduled as yet. Should the bill pass, it is likely that Gov. Chris Christie will veto it. He has said, on a number of occasions, that he has grave concerns regarding the measure.
New Mexico: On January 26, the New Mexico Court of Appeals heard arguments in Morris v. New Mexico, a suit filed in March 2012 by C&C and the ACLU of New Mexico on behalf of two doctors and a cancer patient. A district court judge originally heard the case and ruled in January 2014 that the New Mexico Constitution guarantees terminally-ill patients the “fundamental right” to choose “aid in dying.” The ruling struck down the assisted-suicide law in Bernalillo County only. The state appealed the ruling, and, before a panel of three appellate judges, argued it was up to the legislature to change the law, not the court. An Appeals Court ruling in this case is expected within six to 12 months.
New York: Like the situation in California, the prescribed-suicide legalization strategy in New York is two-pronged, aimed at both the legislature and the courts. On February 17, C&C announced that it had partnered with Senators Diane Savino and Brad Hoylman to introduce S 3685 (New York End of Life Options Act). A similar bill, A 2129 (The Death with Dignity Act) was introduced on January 15 by Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal. S 3685 has been referred to the Senate Health Committee and A 2129 to the Assembly Health Committee. As yet, no hearings have been scheduled.
The lawsuit challenging New York’s law banning assisted suicide was filed in State Supreme Court on February 4. Kathryn Tucker—who is also behind the California lawsuit and has litigated all the major assisted-suicide cases brought by C&C, including the two that went to the US Supreme Court—filed the suit on behalf of three patients and five doctors. Also listed as a plaintiff is the organization End of Life Choices New York, which until very recently operated under the name Compassion & Choices of New York. The Complaint asks the court to declare “that a physician who provides aid-in-dying to a mentally-competent, terminally-ill patient who has requested such aid is not criminally liable under New York’s Assisted Suicide Statute.” [Myers v. Schneiderman, Complaint, at 3, 2/4/15]
Oklahoma: HB 1673 (Oklahoma Death with Dignity Act) was introduced by Rep. Steve Kouplen on January 22 and referred to the House Public Health Committee on February 3. No further action has been taken.
Rhode Island: Introduced on February 12, H 5507 (Lila Manfield Sapinsley Compassionate Care Act) was referred to the House Health, Education & Welfare Committee. No hearing has been scheduled as yet.
Utah: On February 24, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck introduced HB 391 (Utah Death with Dignity Act). The Oregon-style bill has been referred to the House Rules Committee. Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters the he is concerned that the measure will morph into “a right to suicide” for any reason law. [Salt Lake City Tribune, 2/24/15]
Vermont: In 2013, the Vermont legislature passed a doctor-prescribed suicide law, called Act 39 (Patient Choice & Control at End of Life). Included in the law is a “sunset” provision that will repeal five pages of procedure and documentation “safeguards” on July 1, 2016. A bill (S 108) to repeal that provision is currently in the Health & Welfare Committee, chaired by Sen. Claire Ayer, Act 39’s chief sponsor in 2013. On February 18, Ayer held a hearing to find out how Act 39 is working and whether the safeguards should remain in the law. On February 26, the committee postponed any action on S 108 until March 11. Meanwhile, Vermont groups who recognize the huge flaws in Act 39 are mounting an effort to repeal the law entirely.
(Allegedly, since 2013, six lethal drug prescriptions were written and 3 people ingested those drugs and died. There are no official statistics because Act 39 does not authorize the Vermont Health Department to collect such data.)
Washington, DC: The Council of the District of Columbia will be grappling with its first ever assisted-suicide bill. A clone of the Oregon law, Legislation B21-0038 (Death with Dignity Act of 2015) was introduced by Councilmember Mary M. Cheh on January 14 and referred to the Health & Human Services Committee. The measure will be scrutinized by two additional committees and, at some point, a public hearing will be conducted. Cheh said she expects that the Council with take “the better part of a year before the bill is made law in the District.” [WTOP, 1/15/15]
Wisconsin: For the eighth time since 1995, Sen. Fred Risser has introduced a bill to legalize doctor-assisted suicide. SB 28 (simply called Compassionate Choices) was introduced on February 11 by five state senators and 14 representatives. The Oregon-like measure was referred to the Committee on Health and Human Services for consideration. No hearing date has been scheduled as yet.
Wyoming: Claiming he had “a lot of quiet support” for his Oregon-style bill, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer introduced HB 119 (Death with Dignity) on January 22. [Wyoming Daily News, 1/20/15] The bill was referred to the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, which quickly and unanimously tabled the measure on February 9. In addition, the committee recommended that the issue of assisted suicide be studied by a future interim committee.
[2015, vol. 29, No. 1, Patients Rights Council Update, http://www.patientsrightscouncil.org/site/update-075-volume-29-number-1-2015-1/ ]