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Column: Lawmakers consider end-of-life options bill

Elizabeth Whitefield, a longtime family law judge and attorney, advocated for a law that would allow terminally ill patients to seek help from a doctor to end their life. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One by one, they told stories of the painful ways in which loved ones died, the butchery of it all, the screaming, the indignity, the helplessness of final days, the relief that only came through ugly death.

Saturday, as the chill of a polar vortex descended outside, the state House Judiciary Committee took testimony via Zoom on a bill that if passed could allow terminally ill patients to die in a way less cold, less cruel.

When it was over, the committee voted 7-3 to send House Bill 47 to the floor. Then it’s the Senate’s turn to do what it will with the Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signaled she will sign.

It’s the third time the bill, modeled after similar laws in other states, has come before the Legislature, including 2017 when Whitefield, her voice raspy between gasps from a trach tube, testified about the dire need to give those like her facing a painful, certain death from a terminal illness the legal, physician-approved option to end their lives in peace, with a modicum of dignity and at a time of their choosing.

Whitefield, a longtime Albuquerque family law judge and attorney, did not live long enough to testify on behalf of the bill in 2019, her death Aug. 11, 2018, coming as painfully and gruesomely as she feared.

Despite checks and balances in the latest version of the bill, too much misinformation, misunderstanding, partisanship and discomfort with an uncomfortable subject remain.

During public comment, opponents of the bill aired concerns this was an easy way to commit suicide, that a person could be misdiagnosed, that elderly or disabled people would be picked off or that patients would feel pressured to die because their illness was a burden to family.

One suggested insurance companies might prefer a cheaper self-induced death to lengthy expensive treatment. One equated end-of-life drugs to those used in botched executions.

Proponents refuted those concerns. The patient must have a terminal illness, be of sound mind and able to self-administer the medication. Two licensed health care providers, at least one who must be a physician, must confirm the terminal illness – one confirmation is needed if the patient is in hospice.

If the patient’s mental capacity is in question, a mental health professional is required to make an assessment. Two witnesses, only one who can be a relative, are required when the patient signs the form asking to end his or her life.

There’s a 48-hour waiting period before the medication can be obtained. All assisting providers are protected from civil and criminal consequences, and are not forced to participate.

Most who addressed the committee advocated for passage, offering their own experiences with horrific death – the grandfather who slit his wrists and ankles rather than suffer another day with leukemia. The son who sobbed recalling his father’s searing cries to make the pain from cancer stop.

And then there was Erin Armstrong, the 39-year-old daughter of Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, who is a co-sponsor of the bill. She testified that she has fought cancer for 20 years but knows her battle may be nearing its end, the cancer having spread to her bones, lungs, liver, brain.

“I desperately want to live,” she said. “But I want a measure of control of my own death.”

Two of three Republican legislators expressed sympathy, saying they, too, had experienced loved ones’ deaths.

“It tugs on our heartstrings,” said Rep. Greg Nibert from Roswell. “We don’t want to see anyone suffering.”

Then he joined with Republican Reps. James Townsend of Carlsbad and Zachary Cook of Ruidoso to vote against the bill.

Back in Albuquerque, those who had known and loved Whitefield, shook their heads at the misperceptions of the bill she had fought so hard to make law – not for her but for others who faced hard, horrible deaths.

“She knew her death was going to be painful, she knew it was going to be difficult,” said Annette Tapia Wihl, Whitefield’s friend and former paralegal. “More than that, she didn’t want anybody else to go through the hell she was going through.”

Paul Thorne, Whitefield’s husband of nearly 33 years, had been with her through that hell, through all five cancers over 12 years to that last night when he struggled to suck out the fluids that were asphyxiating her from the hole in her neck.

“She was so scared and so frightened,” Thorne said as we talked this week, the anger still real over how after 2½ years since her death the bill has yet to be passed. “Her eyes were big as saucers, her skinny little arms with all those bruises from medication reaching to me. She kept saying, ‘Paul, help me, help me.'”

Earlier, she had come up with a solution: She wanted Thorne to stay with neighbors while she took enough medication to overdose and die. If he wasn’t there, he couldn’t be prosecuted, she told him.

But he refused. He wouldn’t let her die alone.

“There should have been an option like the one in this bill,” he said. “She didn’t want to die, but she also didn’t want anybody to die in such pain, alone.”

He was there, as always, when she died, hours before she was supposed to speak at the annual meeting of the State Bar of New Mexico on the importance of the bill.

Her last words, he said, were “Paul. Paul. Paul.”

Her last wish was to see the passage of the bill that now bears her name.

May this be the year she finally gets that wish.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.

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