Wearing blue shirts with “No Aloha In Suicide” stickers and yellow shirts with “End-Of-Life Options” stickers, dozens of opponents and supporters of medical aid in dying packed a Capitol auditorium Tuesday.
They took turns testifying, two minutes at a time, before a joint House panel on a measure that would give terminally ill adults the legal right to take a fatal prescription drug under certain conditions.
The Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Scott Nishimoto, and the Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by Rep. John Mizuno, deferred a vote until Wednesday on House Bill 2739 after hearing hours of impassioned pleas to stand up for individual rights or oppose the bill in the name of God.
Mizuno said the committee members “just didn’t feel comfortable yet” with the bill and will spend the night working on it some more.
But the hearing itself represented an important milestone for supporters of medical aid in dying legislation.
Last year, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a similar measure. But that bill died in a House committee without a vote.
If the current bill makes it out of the joint committee Wednesday, it will go to the full House for a vote sometime in March. Several lawmakers predicted the bill will eventually pass the House in a split vote.
Strider Didymus described the bill as legalized murder before ranting about abortion and bringing same-sex marriage into the discussion.
“You are pawns of the evil one,” he said.
Ruth Mizuba, who flew in from Hilo, urged lawmakers to pass the bill after sharing her husband’s experience dying of colon cancer.
“By far, the most important issue for him was to be in control of his life’s decisions, such as treatment and efforts to maintain his life,” she said.
Two top Democratic politicians also expressed their support for the bill.
Gov. David Ige sent his administrative director, Ford Fuchigami, to tell House lawmakers that he would be “proud and honored” to sign the bill. Others in his administration also testified in support, including Health Director Virginia Pressler, who offered technical amendments.
“It’s time for this bill to become law,” Ige said in a statement. “Mentally competent, terminally ill people who are in pain and who are suffering should be given the choice to end their lives with grace, dignity and peace.”
Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who is running against Ige in the Aug. 11 primary, emailed a statement highlighting her support of similar death-with-dignity legislation for nearly 20 years.
“This measure is the right thing to do and the time to act is now,” she said. “There is clear public support for allowing patients suffering from terminal illness to decide how they want to spend the remainder of their life. That decision belongs to them and we should ensure that the regulations and procedures we approve respect their wishes and protect their rights.”
A Civil Beat Poll in late November found 63 percent of Hawaii voters supported legalizing medical aid in dying, with 22 percent opposed, 9 percent unsure and 6 percent not caring either way.
The opposition Tuesday came largely from conservative religious groups.
Walter Yoshimitsu, executive director of the Hawaii Catholic Conference, the church’s public policy arm, said the law would “blur longstanding medical, moral and legal distinctions between withdrawing extraordinary medical assistance and taking active steps to destroy human life.”
He said it would also undermine the physician’s role as healer and could lead to psychological, financial and other pressures for vulnerable people to end their lives.
Some folks felt the tug of religion but did not want to impose their views on others.
DeMont Conner, a Native Hawaiian who has been battling leukemia the past three years, said his personal relationship with Jesus Christ has nothing to do with other people’s rights.
“It comes down to my choice,” he said. “You’re not here to regulate other people’s lives.”
There were many familiar faces in the crowd, including John Radcliffe, a longtime lobbyist who became the poster child for the failed effort to pass similar legislation last year.
He said he has outlived his initial prognosis by 20 months. His cancer has spread in the meantime, but he remained firm in his support of passing a medical aid in dying bill.
“I am hoping to go where it takes me but my prognosis remains six months or less,” he said. “There are good days and bad but mostly good. What would be bad is if this option for a peaceful death not be approved.”
Last year, the Senate passed a similar measure that had fewer safeguards in a 22-3 vote. That bill crossed over to the House but stalled in the Health Committee, chaired at the time by Rep. Della Au Belatti.
Au Belatti introduced a new measure this session with more safeguards, such as an additional “form of attestation,” a final sign-off on the process, that the patient must complete before receiving the fatal drugs.
Eva Andrade, head of the conservative faith-based group Hawaii Family Forum, acknowledged Belatti’s work in addressing concerns from last year. But she said she still opposes the bill because it sends a message that suicide is OK.
Kat West, national director of policy and programs for Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group for end-of-life options, said the group supports Hawaii legalizing medical aid in dying but opposes several provisions in the current bill that at equal turns create unnecessary hurdles and loosen safeguards.
She said in her testimony that the measure should require the patient to self-administer the drug, which is a safeguard all other states with such a law have in place. And she said the fourth, final attestation is unnecessary.
“Adding additional requirements and regulations doesn’t make medical aid-in-dying laws safer,” she said. “It only creates additional hurdles that make it impossible for dying people to use this end-of-life care option and makes it unlikely that doctors would be able to practice medical aid in dying to relieve intolerable suffering for their dying patients,” West said.
The joint committee hearing will take up the bill again for a possible vote at noon, Wednesday, in Room 329 at the Capitol.
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