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A lawsuit filed Wednesday against the state of Hawaii aims to grant terminally ill, mentally competent patients the right to medical aid in dying.
Plaintiffs, including the nonprofit organization Compassion & Choices, longtime Hawaii lobbyist and terminal cancer patient John Radcliffe and physician Charles Miller, held a press conference Thursday.
The lawsuit seeks to “establish the constitutional right of individuals to request and receive a prescription to end their unnecessary suffering at the end of life pursuant to the practice of medical aid in dying.”
The lawsuit defines medical aid in dying as mentally competent, terminally ill adults receiving prescriptions to end their own lives. It argues that doctors who provide terminal patients with life-ending drugs should be protected from prosecution and patients should have the option to obtain a such a prescription.
Medical aid in dying is not prohibited outright in state law, but Hawaii Attorney General Douglas Chin and his predecessor, David Louie, have said physicians who prescribe lethal medications could face prosecution, according to the lawsuit.
Still, terminal patients in the islands have some legal options.
“I think having John Radcliffe as one of our advocates, having the terminally ill people coming forward (is important), and it’s really hard when you hear a story like John’s or others to not listen.” — Mary Steiner, Compassion & Choices
“Current Hawaii law already recognizes the fundamental right of people to make end-of-life health care decisions, including the right to refuse life-sustaining treatment, including nutrition and hydration,” said Anderson Meyer, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, at the press conference.
Despite the lawsuit, the plaintiffs said they’re focusing most of their attention on getting a bill passed in the Legislature this year.
Radcliffe said at the press conference that “a lot of politics” surround the issue and suggested a proposed bill may not have passed the Legislature in 2016 because it was an election year.
The lawsuit describes Radcliffe’s battle with colon cancer, which spread to his liver and is now inoperable.
He said he’s been through 42 rounds — 129 days — of chemotherapy. His next round of treatment starts Tuesday. He said doctors told him in 2014 that depending on the level of treatment he chose to receive, he had six months to two years to live.
Suffering not only affects patients, but also their families, Radcliffe said.
“That’s why we’ve got to make a bigger run at this right now and not wait for the court case, although the court case is also a very, very good thing,” Radcliffe said during the press conference. “But I’ll be dead in a couple of years and this case has to be won now, in this Legislature.”
A survey administered for Compassion & Choices by Anthology Marketing Group found 80 percent of Hawaii voters, regardless of age or religion, support the terminally ill having access to medical aid in dying.
Radcliffe told Civil Beat that the nonprofit approached him to speak on behalf of the cause. Medical aid in dying is a social issue as important as gay marriage and abortion rights, he said, but it hasn’t been addressed in Hawaii.
“When you’re dying, it has a tendency to focus your mind on what’s important and what’s not … (There’s family and friends) and then you’ve got to do what you can to help others. I think I’m in this because I’ve been in it now for my whole professional life,” Radcliffe said, pointing to his experience in governmental relations, as a lobbyist and as a union organizer and leader.
Six states have legalized medical aid in dying. In 2009, Montana’s Supreme Court ruled that nothing in existing state law barred physicians from assisting terminal patients. Lawmakers in Vermont and California passed legislation to legalize medical aid in dying in 2013 and 2015, respectively.
The issue has cropped up in the Hawaii Legislature several times.
Mary Steiner, campaign manager of Compassion & Choices Hawaii, told Civil Beat she believes the poll could persuade lawmakers that medical aid in dying matters to their constituents.
Hawaii has been on the forefront of other social issues and ought to take the lead on this one, she said.
Testimony from terminally ill patients will also bolster chances for legislation to pass this year, she said.
“I think having John Radcliffe as one of our advocates, having the terminally ill people coming forward (is important), and it’s really hard when you hear a story like John’s or others to not listen,” Steiner said.
Charmaine Manansala, Compassion & Choices’ national political director, told Civil Beat that politicians often lag behind their constituents’ views, but the 80 percent support figure should show lawmakers that it would be in their best interest to support medical aid in dying legislation.
“Some legislators are too careful in terms of what they vote on. They think they might offend certain sectors of society,” Manansala said.
View the full lawsuit and voter poll below: