Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (Democrat – Salt Lake City) is no stranger to presenting death with dignity legislation, and this year was no different as she presented HB 76 – End of Life Options Act to the House Health and Human Services Committee Thursday.
In her third defense of the bill, Chavez-Houck would starts by reminder her fellow lawmakers that she has worked hard lobbying the body to make sure that there is a legitimate conversation about the policy aspects of her bill, however, she would acknowledge that this has been an uphill battle with unfounded fears about issues such as suicide contagion and the “slippery slope” argument holding little weight in reality.
“Despite my past efforts, discussions have devolved to use anomalous anecdotes and not on the peer-reviewed studies I have shared – I am open to constructive recommendations…if those recommendations are offered in return for good faith support of the bill.”
Chavez-Houck went on to acknowledge that faith does play an important role in this debate but pointed out that not only should individuals come to their own conclusions in relation to their God, but also that, though the LDS Church is opposed to physician-assisted suicide, in an official statement they said that “members should not feel obligated to extend mortal life through means that are unreasonable. Decisions in such cases are best made by family members [after prayer and meeting with doctors].” She would then conclude by pointing out that some version of a death with digntly law is on the books in 6 states and Washington, D.C.
Houck then introduced three guests to the committee to provide their own stories in support of her legislation.
Forrest Shaw, who is living with terminal prostate cancer, has undergone treatments such as chemical castration in an attempt to slow the spread of his disease, and noted that such a law would allow people suffering from terminal illnesses from having to wait to find peace and solace. Arlene Pentilla, who similarly suffers from stage 4 colon cancer but is currently in remission said that “when it comes back, and when the pain is so extreme, and I know that [there are no more treatment options], I would like the option, with medical aid, in dying.” John Sharf, who suffers from stage 4 prostate cancer, would close by tearfully saying “I don’t want to die, I don’t want cancer either, but it is the cards I have been dealt…If I can’t take care of my family, play with my grandkids, or even get up to use the bathroom – for me there is no point in taking it any further. I want to leave being surrounded by my family and lying in my wife’s arms.”
“Each patient has their own moral compass, their own values and faith. You don’t have to take on that responsibility. You are being asked to support individual freedom and agency for patients in this situation.” Sharf concluded.
Groups such as the Sutherland Institute, Family Policy Resource Center, Utah Eagle Forum, and the Catholic Archdiocese would speak against the bill. Their concerns ranged from feeling that such a bill would cause insurance companies and families to put subtle pressure on an individual to take their life to creating and supporting a culture of suicide. While supporters from the audience emphasized how Houck’s bill was an expression of human compassion.
Representative Ray Ward (Republican – Bountiful), a doctor himself attempted to pass out the legislation with a favorable recommendation. “the thing that speaks to me really is my own experiences. I think about my own family and my own life and the patients I work with as they get older and older and look at the end of their life as it comes closer and closer. The thing that speaks to me really is my own experiences. I think about my own family and my own life and the patients I work with as they get older and older and look at the end of their life as it comes closer and closer. To me I believe that this is an option that they would want to be able to think about.”
In a bit of morbid irony, the committee would reject Ward’s motion and instead why they wanted to kill the legislation.
Representative Paul Ray (Republican – Clearfield) made a motion to table the bill – meaning that it will be held by the committee, but could only be heard if 2/3rds of committee members agree with the motion. Meanwhile Representative Ed Redd (Republican – Logan) who is also a doctor, is concerned that such legislation is “putting the government in a position to encourage this sort of situation where you are actually promoting by telling physicians that they can prescribe this and can help a person take their on life – you are basically promoting a culture and paradigm shift that, in my mind, leads to a change in how we approach life.” Finally, Representative Brad Daw (Republican – Orem) said that he supported”tabling [the bill]…the message I want to send clearly is that this is the wrong policy for Utah.”
Before the final vote, Representative Chavez-Houck reminded the committee that “the patients will always be there, they will always want this.” She would emphasize this point by giving a tearful statement about Carrie Snider, who testified over the previous two years but was unable to attend the meeting.
“Her husband, Bryan, and her friends are present – but Carrie died two weeks ago – and her family knows what her final days were like, and they were not peaceful or beautiful. They also know that she was fiercely committed to having this option, and she fiercely resented being forced to suffer because of our inaction.” In a recorded message, Snider addressed the committee, noting that people have a certain drive “when knowing they have an expiration date” which is why she worked until her final days to try and pass such legislation.
This was not enough to convince the committee to advance the bill, however, and would vote to table the bill – effectively ending any chances for the legislation this session – by a vote of 9-3.
*Editors Note: Utah Political Capitol has participated in fundraising events related to providing care for Forrest Shaw.