Sunday, February 24, 2002

Legislature 2002

Suicide bill goes
to full House

The measure advances despite
opposition of pro-family and
isle medical groups

By Helen Altonn

A bill to allow physician-assisted suicide has advanced to the full House of Representatives for consideration with 10-1 approval by its Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

Supporters hailed the vote as courageous after 3 1/2 hours of emotional testimony on both sides of the issue yesterday in the Capitol auditorium.

Strongly opposed by religious, pro-family and medical groups, the bill would allow persons to obtain medication to end their lives if they were suffering from a disease and expected to die within six months.

Speakers testifying for the measure (HB 2487-HD1) commended Committee Chairman Eric Hamakawa (D, South Hilo-Puna) and the members for even hearing the controversial bill.

Senate Health Chairman David Matsuura (D, South Hilo-Puna) has said he wasn't holding a hearing on assisted-suicide bills because there wasn't enough time to address insurance and legal questions.

The House Judiciary Committee also passed House Bill 2491 on a 10-1 vote proposing a state constitutional amendment to give the Legislature power to allow terminally ill adults to obtain prescriptions from a physician for drugs to end life.

Hamakawa said some changes will be made in the "death with dignity" bills, which he hopes the full House will pass and the Senate will look at. "They have a couple of weeks. I'm hoping for the best results."

He said the bill was "crafted very narrowly to affect few people" and has many safeguards. It is patterned after Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law.

Hamakawa said he "didn't twist anyone's arm" to vote for the bills, that he told the members "to vote their conscience. These decisions are always tough, a very personal one for each member."

Rep. Joe Gomes, (R, Kailua-Lanikai-Waimanalo), who cast the only no vote, said he's "sympathetic to the issue" because of compelling testimony and work he has done for Hospice here and on the mainland.

"The hang-up for me is whether doctors should play a role," he said, also noting concerns that end-of-life decisions might be made based on "costs and burdens" on family members. "I guess that's the slippery slope."

In voting for the bill, Rep. Barbara Marumoto (R, Kahala-Waialae-Maunalani Heights), said, "This one is for Bud." She said Bud Smyser, long-time Star-Bulletin editor and columnist ("Hawaii's World") who died March 19, last year, "lobbied me many years on this issue."

However, she said many friends and family members oppose allowing patients to end their lives. She voted for both bills with reservations, as did Rep. Terry Nui Yoshinaga (D, McCully-Moiliili-Pawaa).

Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kaneohe-MCBH-Kailua), said her mother died a very painful death from cancer. "I don't know if she would have chosen this (physician-assisted suicide), but I would have wanted it to be available to her."

Among opponents were the American Center for Law and Justice of Hawaii, Hawaii Catholic Conference, Hawaii Family Forum, Healthcare Association of Hawaii, Hawaii Medical Association and Hawaii Nurses Association.

Daniel P. McGivern, Pro-Family Hawaii president, called the bills an "'axis of evil' from Gov. Cayetano." He threatened to place advertisements during the election to inform the public about "a legislator who favors killing people by ending their lives."

"Pro-family is family getting together to honor the last wishes at the last moment of a loved one," Josh Stanbro said after describing his father's agonizing death from prostate cancer last year in Kona while the family watched helplessly.

His father was in so much pain and taking so much morphine that he wanted to end his life and when the doctor said he couldn't do it, his father asked the family to get a book on how he could commit suicide, Stanbro said. He ended up taking a bunch of sleeping pills and dying.

Kenneth Zeri, director of clinical operations at Hospice Hawaii and chair-elect of the Hawaii Cancer Pain Initiative, Patricia Lee, an advanced practice registered nurse, and Alyson Williams-Cheung with the Hawaii Nurses' Association said the focus should be on pain management and end-of-life care, which are rapidly improving.

Many seniors urged the committee to pass the bills. "My life and my death and my pain depend on your decisions," said Delia Leone. "You're not old. You're not in pain. So how can you decide for some of us how much pain we can endure?

"This doesn't seem like the land of the free when someone old and in pain wants to die," she said, noting she has had three small strokes. "Is there any dignity when urine is coming down your leg, or on your daughter's expensive mattress? Is there any dignity in that? Let me live in dignity. Let me die in dignity."

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