Stacie Scott,
Rebecca Chavez-Houck, Democratic member of the Utah State House of Representatives, discusses the urgency to expand Medicaid during a press conference at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers have again opted to study further the potential impacts of becoming a right-to-die state.

"This is one of those big, big, big, big issues," said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo.

Physician-assisted suicide, Thurston said, is perhaps "bigger than the issue of medical insurance" in the state, which has occupied the Legislature for three years now.

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, who sponsored the End of Life Options Act, HB264, for the second time this year, said she's OK with the opportunity to discuss the matter further with her colleagues between sessions, but she will continue to back the bill every year "until it passes."

Last year, her Death with Dignity bill was also sent to interim for study. But Chavez-Houck said medical marijuana, "which is also a very important issue," took up the majority of committee discussion last year. She said she has spent a lot of time creating and vetting the proposal to give Utahns a choice in how and when they die.

"The final stage brings terror to my heart," said Dr. Elizabeth Pollak, a pathologist in southern Utah. She has stage 4, metastatic ovarian cancer, which she said will kill her.

"I want the right to choose to die before my suffering gets that severe and before I have to drag my family through the tragedy of watching me waste away, becoming a person they don't even recognize," Pollak said. "If I know I will have this choice, I can turn back to exuberant living without fear of what's coming for the remaining time I have left."

Pollak and others who testified to the House Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday may not be around when the group debates Utahns' options to die in the coming year.

"Belive me, I would love to live," said Carrie Snyder, who has terminal stage 4 adenocarcinoma that has spread to her brain. "I have not chosen to die. That has been chosen for me."

She asked lawmakers for the right to say goodbye to family and loved ones "while I'm still connected and lucid and can show (them) how much they mean to me."

"I can then face death peacefully, with love in my heart, knowing my family is at peace as well," Snyder said tearfully.

But Maryann Christensen, executive director of the Utah Eagle Forum, said death is a time that "helps families grow together, teaching nurturing and compassion." Christensen said she would hate for state law to preclude families from the "blessings" that come from times of suffering.

Jean Hill, government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said the policy should be carefully considered, as it would only provide a choice of the time, place and manner of death for some people, not all.

"I believe government shouldn't kill, nor should it encourage others to kill," she said, asking lawmakers to "recognize the value of all life, even in its final moments."

"Most of us will die of disease with long, downhill courses," said Margaret Battin, a professor of philosophy and medical ethics at the University of Utah. She said medically induced death is not something used frequently in states and countries that allow it.

Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, passed in 1997, Battin said, provides for just three-tenths of 1 percent of the state's annual mortality.

"This is something you might choose, and you might choose it just before the very end," she said, adding that it isn't something people use to die long before their time.

Committee Chairman Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield, thanked those who testified Thursday, saying it is a "sensitive issue."

"There is some additional information that I would love to continue to share with you," said Chavez-Houck. "It is something that requires a lot of depth and conversation."

The committee voted unanimously to study prescription drug death in the interim, which convenes after the session closes and every month thereafter throughout the year.

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