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Lawmaker: 'Aid in dying' bill gives patients alternative

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An effort to try to help terminally ill patients in Minnesota legally end their lives is on hold, even before it got traction. Hundreds of people packed into a Senate hearing room at the state Capitol Wednesday, with strong views on both sides.

Holding a picture of her mother, Sally Settle recalled the hardships the family endured before they lost her to leukemia. 

"She was most likely to grow tired of the pain and suffering and quit taking transfusions, and this would mean that she would bleed to death over a matter of three to five days," she said. "The only advice we got from the palliative care team on how to get through that is to get a big stack of dark-colored towels."

Despite knowing what was ahead, Settle said the final days were almost unbearable. She and several others shared emotional testimonies at a Minnesota Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing. They were reacting to a bill modeled after Oregon's "Death with Dignity" law. The 18-year-old law gives terminally ill patients access to medication and the option to decide when to die.

State Sen. Chris Eaton, a DFLer from Brooklyn Center, is author of the bill. Eaton said the law should not be mistaken for assisted suicide. 

"Aid in dying gives those who are close to death with no chance of recovery an alternative when their agony becomes unbearable, Eaton said. "These people are dying. If nothing is done, they will die."

But critics say hastening death is suicide. And they say a law such as this could encourage people to take their lives even if they aren't near the end. Opponents told the committee the bill doesn't take medical treatment into account and how many patients live years beyond their prognosis.

Elizabeth Bakewicz was first told she had three to five years to live when doctors discovered her brain tumor. That was seven years ago. 

"This bill just gives me the opportunity to end my life. And rather than death and dignity this bill gives people with terminal illness the idea that they are a burden not worth bearing."

  Under the bill, competent adults with a diagnosed terminal illness and a prognosis of six months or less to live qualify for medication that could bring death. 

Patients would need two doctors and two witnesses, who aren't guardians or have power of attorney, to sign off on the requests. Patients would also need to know their hospice care options. 

Supporters say prolonging the dying process has been a common practice in the medical world for years and that it's time to strengthen patient autonomy.  

But the American College of Physicians Ethics Manual says doctors could increase pain meds to help patients feel comfortable, even if that inadvertently shortens life.

That left Sen. Carla Nelson, a Republican from Rochester, wondering why Minnesota needs a law. 

"There are a number of moving pieces here that are a little bit, I think, disjointed," Nelson said.  

Some said palliative care, which is what patients receive near the end of life, needs attention in Minnesota. 

"If giving me and other physicians the authority to end my patient's life represented some resemblance of improved care, I would support this," said Dr. Cory Ingram, a palliative care specialist with the Mayo Clinic. "In reality, giving doctors the authority to write lethal prescriptions represents the raising of the white flags of surrender over the communities of Minnesota, (saying) 'We give up.'"

Eaton, the bill's author, says it's not ready for a vote. She pulled it from committee.