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Debate over medically assisted suicide returns to State Capitol

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A woman poses for a photo in her home.
Marianne Turnbull used to be a clinical social worker for the St. Paul Public Schools but had to retire in 2015 after she was diagnosed. She has stage IV ovarian cancer and will be among the people testifying Wednesday before a Minnesota House committee in support of the End of Life Option Act.
Jim Mone | AP Photo

Four years ago, Marianne Turnbull of St. Paul was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. She wants state lawmakers to make it legal for her doctor to prescribe a fatal dose of medicine so she, not her illness, has the ability to determine the end of her life if she wants to.

"I'm a social worker so I've been trained to follow certain social work principles and one of them in self determination,” she said. “And this to me is the ultimate act of self determination."

Turnbull said she was surprised to learn how politically controversial her desires are. She said this should be a decision made only within the confines of the doctor-patient relationship.

Turnbull is among a handful of people expected to testify Wednesday afternoon in front of the Minnesota House Health and Human Services Policy Committee.

The panel is hearing legislation entitled the “End of Life Options Act.” The bill lays out who may seek life-ending medication, providers’ responsibilities and allows immunity for physicians who follow the rules.

Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized medically assisted suicide.

Like Oregon's law, the Minnesota legislation would give terminally ill people, who are mentally competent and have less than six months to live, the option to seek and receive a fatal dose of medication.

"There are a number of ways to deal with the struggles that come to all of us at the end of life. Assisting somebody to kill themselves is not the route to take,” said Scott Fischbach, executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. "Here in Minnesota, we pride ourselves on having a very good health care system. We need to make sure that health care is available to all and assisted suicide is not. We can do better."

In the Minnesota House, only members of the majority DFL Party have signed on to the bill. Outside the Capitol, there are splits over the bill in the medical field and among faith leaders.

The Minnesota Medical Association says it is opposed to any aid in dying legislation that lacks certain protections. For example, the association wants to ensure physicians can’t be compelled to prescribe a fatal medication, and that only patients administer the meds.

The legislation’s chief author, Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, said the bill has plenty of safeguards to make sure it's not abused.

"Two physicians have to sign off to attest that the person, first of all, has a terminal illness, which is defined very specifically, that they have less than six months to live,” he said, “and also to make sure they are of a sound mind and able to make a rational decision and fully understand what they are doing. And also that they have to self-administer the medication."

In Oregon, where medically assisted suicide has been legal since 1998, the annual number of people who've had prescriptions written and died has risen since the law was enacted. Last year, 249 people received prescriptions for lethal doses of medications. The state says 168 people died from ingesting those prescribed medications

Oregon has polled people who have sought the prescriptions about their motivations. Among the respondents, 91 percent cited losing autonomy; 89 percent cited losing the ability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable; 74 percent cited a loss of dignity.

The Minnesota bill has raised concerns for people with disabilities.

"I really struggle with this whole death with dignity thing and what it means to be dignified as to have value and worth,” said Karen Ware, a nurse from South St. Paul, whose 25-year-old son has chronic medical conditions and disabilities. She, too, plans to testify to the House committee. Ware worries that legalizing medically assisted suicide will lead to value judgments on which lives are worth living, and which are not.

"And then what you are saying is that people with disabilities lives don't have that value and worth, and that's troublesome to me because I've struggled for 25 years to try to make sure that the community sees my son as a valuable part of his community,” she said.