Life and death; pain and suffering: sometimes it’s necessary to talk about the most profound questions about the meaning of life itself and how the state might intervene in the most personal decision we may ever make.
New Mexico is going to be talking about medical aid in dying again this year. It is, to say the least, an uncomfortable subject.
House Bill 90 proposes to allow physicians or other health care providers, upon the request of a terminally ill patient, to prescribe medication that will end the patient’s life. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Debbie Armstrong (D-Albuquerque) and Senator Liz Stefanics (D-Cerrillos).
A similar bill was considered in 2017 but did not pass the Senate.
The bill specifies that the option only may be used by a medically competent adult who is capable of taking the medication himself or herself. It contains a number of safeguards, including the requirement of a 48-hour waiting period before the prescription may be filled.
The 48-hour waiting period is a new provision in this bill, compared to legislation already enacted in other states, according to UNM law professor Rob Schwartz, who has been active in this movement.
Schwartz said in some states the legislation has required a 15-day waiting period before the prescription could be filled by a pharmacist. But that has led to unnecessary days of suffering by patients who did not ask for the prescription until they were in terrible pain. And in some cases, the patient died before the 15 days were up.
The bill provides several legal protections. For example, it says a physician may not be held liable for either prescribing or refusing to prescribe the medication. If a person uses the option, the legal cause of death shall be the underlying disease.
The first state to enact an aid-in-dying law was Oregon, in 1997. Similar laws have been enacted in Washington State, California, Colorado, Montana, Vermont, and most recently in Hawaii and Washington DC.
Oregon has the most complete statistics. Its latest annual report shows most patients were aged 65 years or older (80.4%) and had cancer (76.9%).
One common argument against the option is that frail, sick elders will be pressured by family members against their own wishes. Schwartz said no confirmed instances of this have been found in the states with the option.
Schwartz said the reports show that a significant number of the patients who received the prescription never filled it, and many who filled it never used the medication. The fact that they have the medication in hand, so they have some control over their situation, gives them comfort.
This is a very personal issue for me as I deeply wish to have the choice, when my time comes, to take advantage of this gift of modern medicine. I see no value in unnecessary suffering at the end of life. I recognize that others, based on religious values, may have different feelings or beliefs. They are free to choose not to use the option.
A19th century poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes tells about “the wonderful one-hoss shay/ That was built in such a logical way/ It ran a hundred years to a day.” Then, after many verses describing its continuing sturdiness, “…it went to pieces all at once,/ All at once, and nothing first, / Just as bubbles do when they burst.”
I’ve read that it’s a political metaphor, but I’ve always thought of this poem as the way all of us would like to die. Live for a hundred years with the heart of a bull, the knees of a gazelle, the waistline of a fashion model and the digestion of a 12-year-old, and then die peacefully in our sleep. I’d certainly like that to be my fate, but I’m not counting on it, and neither can any of us.
Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2019