Medical aid in dying bill considered in Minnesota legislature

Terminally ill patients could get a doctor’s help to end their lives if the Minnesota legislature passes a bill passed through the House health committee Thursday.

Medical aid in dying is allowed in Washington, D.C. and 10 states, including Oregon, which has allowed it for almost 25 years.

In Minnesota, it’s been on the table for eight years without passing despite polls showing strong support -- up to 73% in a poll conducted at the State Fair last year from 67% in 2016.

Metastatic cancer of the small intestine will eventually kill Jeff McComas, a self-described Republican from Woodbury,

His most recent prognosis has him surviving into 2025, but he wants to have some control over the timing.

"I didn't pick this road, but it's a road I'm on and I want to decide when I've had enough," McComas said. "I never really thought about medical aid and dying before I got sick."

The End-of-Life Options bill up for debate in Minnesota includes strict qualifications.

Patients have to be at least 18 years old with a diagnosed terminal illness that has them within six months of dying.

They have to be mentally capable — so no dementia patients would qualify — and they have to be able to administer the deadly medication themselves.

But opponents say it’s not enough.

"About 17% of the time across the nation, we make a mistake in that and people outlive the six months," said Dr. John Mielke, who works in hospice and palliative care.

Dr. Mielke pointed out the American Medical Association opposes medical aid in dying.

The Minnesota Medical Association is neutral as long as the safeguards stay in place.

But Nancy Utoft of the Alliance for Ethical Healthcare says binding medical directives and the right to hospice should cover what terminal patients need.

"Assisted suicide is dangerous, risky and unnecessary."

She and Kathy Ware warned of the potential for abuse, including discrimination against minorities, poor people, and people with disabilities.

"Assisted suicide reinforces disability discrimination," Ware said with her disabled son at her side. "And it perpetuates the idea that his life is less valuable than people without disabilities."

Dr. Joanne Roberts once shared those fears as she spent decades treating terminal patients in Washington.

When the state legalized medical aid in dying, she was against it.

But after seeing the law in action for 15 years and developing a terminal illness herself, she says she was wrong.

"It's been used compassionately, and it's been used thoughtfully," said Dr. Roberts, now a retired palliative care doctor living in Minnesota. "Each person who's been enrolled in the program has had complete agency, no coercion by any one families or doctors."

The House health committee heard from several terminally ill patients who want the freedom to decide for themselves.

"I'm thankful that we have hospice as an option, and I will use it for the maximum comfort I can," said Nancy Uden of Corcoran. "But if it's not enough in the end, I want the option to die gently in my sleep."

The health committee passed the bill Thursday, but it’s expected to land in at least one more committee before it comes up for a vote in the House, sometime after the legislative session begins next month.

And with a lot of Republican opposition, getting it passed in the Senate, where Democrats have a one-vote majority, could be very difficult.