Doctor facing terminal illness fights for aid-in-death law in Minnesota

Advocates met with lawmakers at the Minnesota state capitol on Thursday to push for a law that would give patients with terminal illnesses the option to end their lives.

A bill that would bring a "Death with Dignity" law in Minnesota was introduced last month in both the state House of Representatives and Senate.

Advocates say the bill is structured like Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, which was passed nearly three decades. Since then, ten other states have followed suit with similar laws.

In the legislation under consideration in Minnesota, a "mentally capable" adult with a terminal illness would have the option to request an end-of-life treatment. If that patient meets the qualifications, as determined by their primary care doctor and a consulting doctor, they will be allowed to self-administer medication to end their lives.

Doctors and healthcare facilities would be allowed to opt out of performing the process, however. But hospitals would have to post their policies on their website.

In cases where physician-assisted suicide is performed, the death will be considered a result of the illness, and not a homicide or suicide, the legislation specifies.

The law, which has been considered in years past in Minnesota, has drawn some concerns from critics, who worry some patients could choose assisted suicide in the face of hefty medical bills that would be left for their loved ones or other mental pressures that come with terminal care.

One of the advocates for the bill, Dr. Joanne Roberts, a Minnesota doctor who spent most of her career in Washington state, says she initially opposed Washington's end-of-life legislation in 2008. However, since that time, she's become an advocate for end-of-life care.

She says, at the end of the day, in her experience in Washington, the choice always came down to the patient.

"I'm here to tell you today that I was wrong. I was wrong. I voted against it. If I were voting today, I would vote for it," Dr. Roberts said. "I stayed in practice after the law was passed. And what I saw really was a law that was used conservatively. It was used compassionately, and it was used thoughtfully by people. As you know, as we talked about, this is a law where you have to have agency yourself to engage in the law. It's not a doctor's decision. It's not a family's decision. It's not its caregivers' decision. It's your decision."

Dr. Roberts says now, after a career of providing care to thousands of patients, she now faces her own terminal illness.

"I'm retired," she explained. "I'm living with my own terminal disease, and I'm back in Minnesota. And it's likely my disease is going to have suffering that's going to be pretty minimal and my end is going to come fairly quickly. So hospice is going to be a great gift to me. I don't think I will use this law, but I do want to be able to use this law. For me, this is about my choices at the end of life. And for me, it's about my agency as a matter of personal liberty."

The Senate and House bills have been introduced but have not yet undergone hearings in the legislature.