Proposals for medical aid in dying didn’t even get a hearing in the Hawaii Legislature last year, but times have changed.

Senate Bill 1129 would allow licensed physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill, competent adults who have a prognosis of six or fewer months to live. It was passed unanimously Wednesday by the Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Heath.

And its next stop is the Judiciary and Labor Committee, vice chaired by Sen. Karl Rhoads, one of the bill’s introducers.

A similar Senate bill died last year without getting a hearing, as did a House bill.

Marsha Joyner from the Chamber of Commerce for Person with Disabilities holds her sign outside Capitol room 229 before hearing. She wasn't allowed to bring her sign into the hearing. S1129. 15 feb 2017
Marsha Joyner from the Chamber of Commerce for Persons With Disabilities Hawaii passed out signs outside the Senate hearing room. She wasn’t allowed to bring her sign into the hearing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I know it can be a hot button topic,” Sen. Rosalyn Baker, chair of the commerce committee, said at Wednesday’s hearing before opening the floor to testimony.

A crowd of people formed in front of the committee meeting room well before 8 a.m. for the 8:30 a.m. hearing.

Marsha Rose Joyner of the Chamber of Commerce for Persons With Disabilities Hawaii passed out signs reading “Death With Dignity Now! Dying People Can’t Wait!”

Due to the large number of people wanting to speak, testimony was limited to two minutes.

Capitol TV Broadcast of the Dying With Dignity Bill

A number of terminally ill cancer patients and people who served as caretakers for terminally ill family members testified in support of the measure. Many shed tears in the process.

“At times there is no drug, there is no cure for some of these diseases,” said Michele Golojuch, whose grandmother died of cancer. “No amount of opioids took away her pain.”

Dr. Charles Miller, an oncologist working in Hawaii, also testified in support of the bill.

Miller said he’s treated thousands of cancer patients, an experience that led him to becoming an advocate for allowing them the choice of medical aid in dying.  

“This is not suicide,” he said. “These patients are dying, they just want the choice of when and how to die.”

The bill would allow physicians to “help them escape needless suffering at the end of life,” he said.

SB1129 Kamaaina for Aid in Dying testifier in room 229, Capitol. Death Dying Measure. 15 feb 2017
Mary Matayoshi, widow of Hawaii Island Mayor Herb Matayoshi, testifies in favor of the bill at the Capitol on Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A 2016 survey administered by Anthology Marketing Group for Compassion and Choices Hawaii showed that 80 percent of Hawaii voters believe medical aid in dying should be an option for terminally ill people who are mentally sound to make the decision.

Six other states have passed similar legislation, including California, Oregon, Montana, Washington, Vermont and New Mexico.

The American Civil Liberties Union submitted testimony in support of the bill, as did the LGBT and Kupuna caucuses of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.

Religious organizations and representatives of some medical groups spoke in opposition.

The American Nurses Association was among the medical groups testifying against the bill.

“Medical treatments are meant to treat an illness or a dysfunction of the body. There is no medical treatment for death,” said Jackie Mishler, a registered nurse.

Kokua Mau, a local hospice and palliative care organization, also opposes the bill.

Janette Koijane, who spoke for the organization at the hearing, called the legislation “premature.” She also cited concerns about how the bill would be funded and implemented.

Support from John Radcliffe, who has worked as a lobbyist in the state for 41 years, may have helped the bill’s prospects this year.

John Radcliffe seated SB1129 Death Dying measure in Capitol room 229. 15 feb 2017
Longtime lobbyist John Radcliffe needed no introduction at the Senate committee hearing on SB1129 Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In January, Radcliffe, a terminally ill cancer patient, filed a lawsuit along with the nonprofit organization Compassion & Choices and physician Charles Miller against the state. The suit seeks a legal avenue to establish medical aid in dying as a constitutional right.

State law doesn’t prohibit medical aid in dying outright. But according to the lawsuit, state Attorney General Douglas Chin and David Louie, Chin’s predecessor, have said physicians who prescribe lethal medication could face prosecution.

“Don’t kid yourself, this is not a moral issue,” Radcliffe told the senators in at Wednesday’s hearing. “This is all about relief, life-ending relief. It’s about being human.”

Senators appeared captivated as he spoke. Baker did not stop Radcliffe’s testimony once his allotted time ended, though he quickly wrapped up his speech.

The committee made amendments to the bill before passing it. They include eliminating the “death with dignity” terminology and listing the cause of death on death certificates as the terminal illness.

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