Legislation that would allow terminally ill Hawaii adults to receive medication to end their own lives is heading to the floor of the state Senate.

Assuming it clears that chamber, Senate Bill 1129 could cross over to the House of Representatives as early as this week, where its fate is uncertain.

Based on Senate action so far, the bill seems assured to pass the Senate.

On Tuesday, the Judiciary and Labor Committee voted 4-0 on an amended version of SB 1129.

Judiciary Labor committee Vice Chair Sen Karl Rhoads with right, Chair Gil Keith Agaran. 28 feb 2017
Judiciary and Labor Committee Vice Chairman Karl Rhoads, left, is the author of Senate Bill 1129. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim’s “aye” vote came with reservations. “It’s not an easy issue for me,” she said. 

She said the bill was more “palatable” after it was amended to address some of her concerns, such as establishing reporting requirements to the Legislature, retaining medical records and tracking the numbers of patients that might request the medication.

Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, the panel’s chairman, recommended a number of additional amendments to satisfy other concerns. They included clarifying who might serve as witnesses to a death, how next of kin would be notified and how death certificates would be completed.

“We realize that this is an issue that’s important to a lot of people, and I think this deserves further consideration,” he said.

The decision followed a unanimous vote Feb. 15 in the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee.

What About The House?

“We are pleased that a second committee has recognized the compelling need for meaningful access to medical aid in dying in Hawaii,” said Mary Steiner, campaign manager for Compassion & Choices Hawaii, the main group lobbying for passage of SB 1129.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, the Judiciary and Labor vice chairman, is the author of SB 1129.

“It’s obviously an emotional topic, and I think it’s been handled very well by both committee chairs so far — with the understanding that it does raise a lot of strong emotions,” he said. “But it’s moving forward.”

Asked how the bill might fare in the House, where Rhoads served before being elected to the Senate last year, he said, “I think it will be more difficult in the House, but I would say there is a distinct possibility that it will pass. But it’s not a forgone conclusion.”

House Speaker Joe Souki, left, is a supporter of aid in dying legislation. The measure is likely headed for the House, although a full Senate vote comes first. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said that chamber’s members are divided on the issue.

“It is 50-50, and it reflects the division within the larger community, particularly within the medical community, where there is not a consensus on how to approach this issue,” Saiki said.

House Speaker Joe Souki, who championed similar legislation in his opening day speech, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. 

Before the 2017 session began in January, Souki said many of his members would vote depending on their religion and personal philosophies. He said he believes the biggest motivating factor will be not wanting to see loved ones suffer.

An aid in dying bill sponsored by Souki, Saiki and Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke has not received a hearing and is almost certainly not going to proceed this session. The same goes for a similar measure from Rep. Ken Ito and Speaker Emeritus Calvin Say.

Should SB 1129 get hearings in the House, the committees that would be assigned to hear the legislation are Health and Judiciary.

Should the legislation survive both committees, it would require 26 votes in the 51-member House to pass. Six of the members are Republicans.

Language in SB 1129 explains that it is modeled after an Oregon statute “and includes safeguards to protect patients.” It sets up a regulatory process under which a qualified patient can obtain life-ending medication.

Members of the Compassion & Choices group wear yellow shirts in support of aid-in-dying legislation. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Safeguards include confirmation by two medical providers of a patient’s “diagnosis, prognosis, mental competence and voluntariness of the request.” The patient could of course choose to not fill the prescription or to not ingest the pills.

Senate Judiciary and Labor did not accept oral testimony on SB 1129 Tuesday. But the written testimony covered more than 700 pages.

The word “suffering” appeared 244 times in the testimony. Other common words were “dignity” (207 times) and “love” (304 times). “God” appeared 34 times.

‘Human Life Is Sacred’

Among those submitting testimony were members of the state’s dominant political parties.

“Within the last year, California, Colorado and Washington, D.C., have passed medical aid in dying laws, tripling the number of terminally ill Americans with access to a medical aid in dying option,” said Tim Vandeveer, chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. “We believe terminally ill people in Hawaii should have the same option.”

Vandeveer said his party is concerned by reports “that some in our community have taken desperate, violent measures to end their lives in the absence of such an option. We believe mentally capable, terminally ill people should be allowed to pass peacefully if they choose.”

Brett Kulbis, a district chairman on Oahu for the Hawaii Republican Party, strongly opposed SB 1129.

“If we pass assisted suicide it will turn affordable health care on its head by forcing us to endorse patient suicide, not patient care, as our public policy for dealing with pain and the financial burdens of care at the end of life,” he said in testimony. “That is not pono! We’re better than this. We should be expanding palliative care, pain management, nursing and hospice care, not trade the dignity and life of human beings for the bottom line.”

Kulbis added, “Life is a gift from God; every human life is sacred from conception to natural death.”

About the Author