State Sen. Breene Harimoto, who is battling cancer, stands on the floor of the Hawaii Senate to voice his opposition to a medically assisted suicide bill in Honolulu on Thursday, March 29, 2018. Hawaii lawmakers have approved legislation that would make it the latest liberal-leaning state to legalize medically assisted suicide. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

Hawaii lawmakers legalize medically assisted suicide

March 29, 2018 - 8:19 pm

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii lawmakers approved legislation Thursday that would make it the latest liberal-leaning state to legalize medically assisted suicide.

The all-Democratic state Senate voted 23-2 to pass the measure that has already cleared the House. It allows doctors to fulfill requests from terminally ill patients for prescription medication that will allow them to die.

The governor has said he will sign the bill, which would make Hawaii the sixth state to legalize the practice, plus Washington, D.C.

The legislation includes safeguards intended to prevent abuse, but opponents said it puts the poor, elderly, sick and disabled at risk. Lawmakers have heard hours of impassioned testimony from advocates and opponents.

Sen. Breene Harimoto spoke Thursday about his own battle with pancreatic cancer, saying he could never vote to create "an environment of hopelessness" that would allow a doctor to help cause death.

"My faith in God, prayers and sense of hope got me through this. After a long, painful recovery and eight months of chemo and radiation, I was in remission for the past year. It was nothing short of a miracle," he said.

"Because of this personal experience, I feel so strongly that we must always have hope and never give up," the Democrat said.

Sen. Russell Ruderman told fellow lawmakers that the bill was about freedom.

"If you don't believe in it, don't do it. But there is no reason to deny to others the freedom to live and die as we choose," he said.

The chamber's only doctor, Sen. Josh Green, who works in an emergency room, voted for the bill but said he wished lawmakers would take more time to debate it given that a month is still left in the legislative session.

Hawaii Family Forum said in written testimony that the legislation may create subtle pressure on the elderly to end their lives early so they are not a burden to their families.

Among the safeguards are a requirement that two health care providers confirm a patient's diagnosis, prognosis, ability to make decisions and that they voluntarily made the request. A counselor also must determine that the patient is capable and does not appear to be suffering from a lack of treatment of depression.

The patient must make two oral requests for the life-ending medication, with a 20-day waiting period between each. They also must sign a written request witnessed by two people, one of whom can't be a relative.

The measure creates criminal penalties for anyone who tampers with a request or coerces a prescription request.

Gov. David Ige's administrative director, Ford Fuchigami, said the safeguards are sufficient to minimize abuse. He said in written testimony that the legislation will allow terminally ill patients to decide for themselves when and how their lives should end.

Doctor-assisted deaths are already legal in California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Washington state and the District of Columbia. Oregon was the first state to adopt such a law in 1997. Last year, the Hawaii Senate approved similar legislation, but the state House voted it down.

Montana's state Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that doctors could use a patient's request for life-ending medication as a defense against any criminal charges. The state hasn't passed a law making physician-assisted suicide legal or illegal, and regulators have no data for how often it occurs.

Some see providing the choice as a logical evolution in a medical care system that is advanced in helping people live longer but limited in preventing slow, painful deaths.

Critics say they are concerned that the option will lead to hasty decisions, misdiagnoses and waning support for palliative care, in which dying people can be sedated to relieve suffering.

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