SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck has tried for three years to advance so-called "death with dignity" legislation at the Utah Legislature, but Thursday's action in a House committee was essentially a "death sentence" for the bill, she said.
After about an hour of testimony from terminally ill patients pleading for the choice to end their lives with a prescribed drug instead of suffering through a painful death, as well as others who fretted about the ethical implications, the House Heath and Human Services Committee voted 9-3 to table HB76.
Because it would require a two-thirds vote to bring the bill back before the committee for consideration, Chavez-Houck said HB76 will likely be filed as a failed bill.
"It's not unexpected," a tearful Chavez-Houck said in an interview after the meeting.
The Salt Lake City Democrat lamented that more lawmakers weren't supportive enough to at least give the bill a chance to be considered by the full House.
"The patients will always be there. They will always be imploring you to consider this," Chavez-Houck told lawmakers.
In her final statements before the vote, Chavez-Houck held back tears as she explained to committee members that she was about to show a video message from Carrie Snyder, a terminally ill cancer patient who had come before the committee twice to advocate for the bill.
"Carrie died two weeks ago," Chavez-Houck said, her voice straining with emotion. "Her family knows what her final days were like. They weren't peaceful or beautiful. They also know she was fiercely committed to having this option. And she fiercely resented being forced to suffer because of our inaction."
In the video, Snyder spoke from her bed. She said she knew death from the effects of her cancer was coming.
"If I had a way to die by my own hand, I'm at that point and am ready to make that choice. But I do not have that choice," she said.
Patients fearing painful deaths like Snyder's testified before the committee, including Forrest Shaw and John Scharf, both of whom are terminally ill with prostate cancer.
"Once it spreads to the bones, it starts tearing them apart," Shaw said. "It's not going to be long from now before I start sneezing and my ribs start cracking. It's an awful thing. It would be nice to be able to just pass peacefully instead of just being tortured by this disease until, eventually, it will let me die."
Scharf choked back tears as he sat next to his wife, telling lawmakers "there's no point in taking it any further" when he can no longer take care of his family or get out of bed.
"It's kind of like when there's a big snowstorm, and it's windy and cold and you have no hat or gloves. You're shoveling and shoveling snow in freezing cold, or you could go inside where it's warm," Scharf said. "Having the option to stop and go in where it's warm gives you comfort and courage to stick it out a little longer and go as far as you can. This is how I view this option."
Five states — Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and California — have end-of-life laws that allow patients to make a determination on ending their lives.
Chavez-Houck's proposal, modeled after Oregon's law, requires that patients be mentally competent adults with an "irreversible and incurable illness that will result in the patient's death in six months or less."
Two physicians would have to confirm the prognosis, and patients must be counseled on "all feasible alternative treatment options," according to the bill. The patient must also self-administer the drug. No one else, including family members, can assist.
Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan, said he's long opposed the bill because there's a "vast" concern about the long-term implications it would have, with the potential of creating a "paradigm shift" in how physicians approach end-of-life treatment.
"I've been at the bedside of hundreds of patients at the last hours and days before their death. I understand the suffering that happens and the pain they go through," Redd said.
But he also worries that the law would create a "slippery slope" for end-of-life care, he said.
"This is a situation that is going to create a new generation of physicians not focused on care," Redd said. "They're focused on providing pills for terminally ill."
Maryann Christensen, of the Utah Eagle Forum, said she worries the legislation would send a "clear message" that it's OK to end life when it gets too hard.
"It'll significantly change our culture from one where compassion and nurturing is important to one where life is viewed as something that will be thrown away," Christensen said.
Laura Bunker, of the Family Policy Resource, agreed.
"The final days of life are profoundly precious. What (patients) need is love and support and the best medical care available, not a prescription for death," Bunker said.
Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, commended Chavez-Houck for her work on the bill, though he said he "can't get past the fact that you're asking Utah, our society, to legalize others to provide assistance to end a life."
While he spoke, Shaw, sitting in the audience, held his head in his hand, shaking his head back and forth.
According to a Utah Policy survey, 63 percent of Utahns strongly or somewhat favor a law that would give a terminally ill person, as verified by two doctors, the right to choose to die.
Thirty percent said they strongly or somewhat opposed the law. Six percent did not know.