A push to legalize medical aid in dying appears to have ended for the 2017 legislative session.
Senate Bill 1129 would have allowed physicians to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill, competent adults. Over the past month, legislators have heard emotional testimony from those in favor of and against the bill — many of whom were doctors, patients or family members that had been personally impacted by the issue.
Earlier this month, Sen. Breene Harimoto shared his experience surviving pancreatic cancer to his colleagues on the Senate floor, many of whom were visibly moved. Harimoto said it was “a miracle” that he survived after surgery and prayer, and urged his colleagues to vote the bill down.
Still, it passed the Senate on a 22-3 vote.
But the House Health Committee wasn’t as enthusiastic, and on Thursday the committee chair announced the bill would be deferred. That means it is likely dead this session, barring a last minute maneuver by House leadership to give the measure another vote.
Rep. Della Au Belatti, House Health Committee chair, said in a statement that it “was not the time to move the ‘aid in dying’ bill forward,” adding that the community was divided on the issue. If passed, the bill would have been heard in the House Judiciary Committee next.
“Our job is to consider a full range of policy options and consequences, and base our decisions on data and evidence. We must balance the right to choose with protecting those who are most vulnerable,” Belatti wrote. “There must be a broader discussion about safeguards and oversight to this ‘aid in dying’ proposal.”
Belatti and Vice Chair Rep. Bertrand Kobayashi did not return calls seeking comment for this story Thursday.
Rep. Andria Tupola, also a member of the House committee, said in a statement that she “was grateful for Chair Bellati’s courage to defer this measure.” The committee heard hours of testimony from people in medical and legal groups, she said.
Tupola said she was concerned that the bill didn’t define “self-administration” and require the patient to take their medication “in a controlled environment with a witness.” She also took issue with a “lack of enforcement” and “issues with death certificate accuracy.”
Under SB 1129, a patient’s cause of death would have been listed as terminal disease.
The statement also quoted Dr. Rae Seitz, who said the state’s healthcare community wasn’t ready for medical aid in dying. Many physicians don’t understand how to discuss and plan for the issue with their patients, Seitz said.
John Radcliffe, a well-connected lobbyist who spent decades at the Capitol, is now terminally ill. He served as the face of this year’s push to pass medical aid in dying legislation.
Radcliffe, along with nonprofit group Compassion & Choices and physician Charles Miller, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the state. 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.”
Sen. Josh Green, who’s also a physician, was surprised the bill died in committee and said he didn’t have any insight as to why it may have failed. He called Radcliffe a “very well-respected advocate” and personal friend who helped change the dialogue about medical aid in dying.
Green said the medical community tends to be against medical aid in dying, but was neutral this year. This year was also not an election year, which means major social legislation is more likely to pass, he said.
“I’m pretty much at a loss for words,” he said. “I really don’t know what happened today.”
According to a survey administered by Anthology Marketing Group, 80 percent of Hawaii voters supported medical aid in dying, regardless of age or religion.
In previous years, religious and medical groups have primarily stopped the bill from passing.
Six other states, including Oregon, California, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico have passed similar legislation.
The Kupuna and LGBT Caucuses of the Democratic Party, and the American Civil Liberties Union submitted testimony supporting the bill.
Compassion & Choices campaign manager Mary Steiner issued a statement after the bill’s deferral. The organization was disappointed the bill didn’t pass, she said, but is “confident that the will of the people of Hawaii, who so strongly support medical aid in dying, will soon prevail.”