Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, presents her bill granting End of Life options to terminally ill Utahns.
After an hour of tearful discussion Thursday morning, a bill that would have allowed terminally ill Utahns to obtain life-ending medications was voted down by the House Health and Human Services Committee. This was the second year in a row the bill has been rejected.
HB 264, from Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, would have allowed Utah adults with a terminal illness, and who have been diagnosed as having less than six months to live by multiple doctors, to obtain prescriptions for medication that will end their lives. The bill required the dying patients to go through a mental health screening to ensure they are not being coerced, and also required that they take the medications themselves rather than having them administered by someone else.
“I have stage 4 terminal brain cancer,” Carrie Snyder told the committee. “This is about freedom of choice. I would love to live, I have not chosen to die, but that was chosen for me by the cancer. I want the same freedom of choice as I had the freedom to live.” Snyder said her illness means that the last few weeks of her life, which are rapidly approaching, will consist of massive amounts of pain and suffering.
“I don’t want to leave my family with the memory of me the way I have the memory of my father who also passed away from cancer,” Snyder said. “I want to leave this life showing my family how much I love them, and with peace and dignity. That way I’ll be able to face death in my own way. I want my death to be brief, and filled with peace and love. I want to say goodbye and share a moment with my family, my friends, and then take my last bit of medicine before curling up with my dog and passing away.”
Snyder’s comments were echoed by another private citizen, Susie Funk, who told the story of her family caring for her father in his final few weeks before he passed away from cancer. They had to administer his medication to try and manage the pain every 20 to 30 minutes all day and night. “He frequently woke up screaming in pain, and we had to watch as he hallucinated – sometimes terrifying things,” Funk said, “He once woke up in the middle of the night screaming in both pain and anger that he was not dead yet.”
Rev. Tom Goldsmith of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Salt Lake City took a more philosophical approach to try and persuade the committee. “The question we face today is not about the inevitable death we know we all will face one day,” Goldsmith said. “It is about how we exit this world. Sometimes deaths are simply, and quick, and beautiful. But today we’re talking about those who are suffering. Not only the suffering of the individual, but the suffering of the family and loved ones who must watch them suffer.”
Goldsmith also said that the other states which already have End of Life options available, such as Oregon, California, Washington, and Vermont, did not do so because they are less religious than Utah. “They recognized that compassion dictates providing a choice—the value of life is in its content, not in its duration. Hope tempers crises we face. But we’re talking about situations when there is no hope, when death is inevitable, and all that stands between that moment and the time when you draw your last breath is agony and suffering. Dante himself said that the absence of hope is hell. This bill is one of mercy and enormous compassion.”
But the bill faced opposition from conservative groups. Maryann Christensen of the Utah Eagle Forum testified that she believes the bill “will fracture families, because they’re not all going to be in agreement that we should help suffering family members to commit suicide.” Christensen also argued that the dying moments of family members, even if they are filled with physical pain, “help families grow closer together.”
Laura Bunker, head of United Families International, added that allowing dying Utahns to obtain life-ending medications “leaves behind a trail of negative consequences for family and the public. It sends the message that suicide is a reasonable response to problems. It also undermines family trust. The way to end suffering isn’t to end the sufferer. Meaning and love can be found even in the midst of terrible suffering.”
Committee members themselves had little to say about the bill, but quickly took a unanimous vote to deny the bill and study it further during the interim before next year’s legislative session.
“I think this is one of those big, big, big, issues, and we need more time to get coalescence around what should be public policy,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, who made the motion. “We need more time, at least another year.”
After the hearing, Chavez-Houck said it was very emotional to hear “the stories of patients that are just asking their government to get out of their way. The data and studies disprove a lot of the misconceptions and myths that we heard today.” Chavez-Houck said that she was disappointed in those who testified against the bill “who were speaking and imposing their own perspective of what a patient’s experience was at the end of their lives. The only one who knows how they feel at the end of their life and what they want is the patient themselves.”
Carrie Snyder says that she doesn’t expect to be living by the next legislative session. “It was a very emotional experience,” Snyder says. “This is in no way suicide. I want to live. But this is a way for me to be completely in the moment when I die. I want to be with my family, I want to be coherent, I want to be lucid. I have a very short time left, and this is about me fighting to make the rest of my life as amazing, and beautiful, and powerful as it can be.”
“I’m going to fight for this for them,” Chavez-Houck said as she choked back tears. “That’s the hardest part of this. [Those will won’t be with us next year] needed to tell their stories. We have to respect everyone’s journeys regardless of what that looks like. I won’t give up, and I will continue to fight. I will keep bringing this back until it gets passed.”
Chavez-Houck says she’s hopeful that she will be able to continue to sway lawmakers on the committee, and get them to support the legislation eventually.
In addition to covering state politics for
City Weekly, Eric Ethington is communications director for Political Research Associates.