Editorial: Aid-in-dying bill brings peace of mind, dignity to final days

The end-of-life stories are emotionally powerful, too powerful, in fact, to ignore any longer.

Maya Distasio of Albuquerque recently wrote of how her grandfather, Vincent Distasio, made a grim choice to end his life as he suffered from terminal leukemia.

Distasio wrote in an op-ed published in the Journal on Jan. 29 that her 77-year-old grandfather said it felt like holes were constantly being drilled in his bones.

“Have to make a decision. Too much pain. Hard to write this,” Distasio’s grandfather left in a note found near his body. “I want aid in dying but can’t get it in this state. …”

Distasio’s Grandpa Vince was found dead in the bathtub of his Rio Rancho home – from self-inflicted knife wounds. It shouldn’t have come to that for the retired teacher who cooked, painted and “cycled like a champ.”

Just about every family has had to face the imminent death of a loved one. And while modern medicine works wonders and can greatly extend one’s life, it cannot prevent the inevitability of death nor the indignities that come with end-of-life struggles.

The debate over end-of-life options got emotional last week when lawmakers and citizens debated HB 47, the proposed Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act. Whitefield, an Albuquerque judge who died in August 2018 after a multi-year battle with cancer, had testified during the 2017 legislative session that she didn’t want her family to have to watch her die as she choked on her own fluids.

Some spoke about watching their loved ones suffer or finding them after a suicide attempt. Others spoke about the sanctity of life and concerns of someone being pressured into taking their own life. It is a difficult debate to hear, but one worth having. The bill would allow a health care provider to prescribe aid-in-dying medication to a patient with an incurable condition that would kill them within six months. The patient must have the mental capacity to make the decision – a critical safeguard – and the ability to self-administer the medicine.

Similar proposals have failed in recent sessions, but the legislation has been revised with multiple safeguards against abuse – including requiring a written request witnessed by a non-family member/non-heir, a second opinion on the six-month prognosis, an explanation of all options including hospice and palliative care, and a mental-health evaluation if the provider has concerns about a patient’s judgment. Opponents have raised questions about whether a patient might be pressured into ending their life, but there has been no evidence of that in the nine states and District of Columbia where medical aid in dying is legal.

A health care provider who doesn’t want to participate would have to refer the patient to another provider. Fair enough. The legislation prohibits professional sanctions and criminal or civil liability for anyone who participates or refuses to participate in medical aid in dying. That’s another important safeguard.

The House Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-4 on Jan. 29 to send the bill to the House Judiciary Committee, its last stop before the House floor. House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, says he expects it to pass the House this year. The bill passed through committee on a party-line vote with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. That’s unfortunate because suffering and death have no party allegiances.

A 2020 Gallup poll showed 74% of Americans support laws allowing patients to seek the assistance of a physician in ending their life. Many terminally ill patients just want the peace of mind knowing they’ll have an option should the pain and suffering become too great. It’s time the state recognizes no one should have to make the painful, gruesome choice Vincent Distasio did.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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