By CHAO YAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — Earlier this month, Rep. Tom Cochran recalls, a Michigan resident approached him during a coffee hour to tell him her family was moving to Oregon.
The woman’s father suffers from cancer, and when the time is right, he wants to be able to choose to die painlessly using lethal drugs with the aid of a doctor, Cochran said.
That’s a right the man will have in Oregon that he doesn’t have in Michigan.
“Her story is tragic,” said Cochran, a Mason Democrat. “It’s a topic we need to have discussion on, and it has been around for a long time.”
Late last month, Cochran re-introduced a bill, named the “Death with Dignity Act” — the latest attempt to legalize assisted suicide. A similar bill he co-sponsored in 2016 died.
Michigan is well-known for bringing the issue of physician-assisted suicide into the mainstream through the actions of Jack Kevorkian, a doctor who three decades ago began publicly helping people with terminal illnesses to end their lives.
Kevorkian argued that patients should be able to make such choices in consultation with medical and mental health professionals. He videotaped interviews with patients and recorded their deaths. Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder, spent eight years in prison, and was released in 2007.
Oregon passed its “death with dignity act” in the late 1990s. A 2016 report by the Oregon Public Health Division recorded 133 terminally ill patients who used the the law last year.
As of 2017, five states — California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — have laws allowing terminally ill adults who are state residents to request and receive prescription medication to end their lives voluntarily.
The Michigan bill contains provisions similar to the ones in states that have legalized physician-assisted-suicide. In the latest bill, patients with terminal illness must be capable of making an “informed decision.”
An attending physician and a counseling physician are required to determine the patient’s condition based on medical diagnosis and prognosis. The patient must make an oral and written request, and then renew the request after a 15-day waiting period.
“By introducing this legislation, it’s my hope that we can move this forward, because I believe that attitudes have changed,” Cochran said, adding that he had received support from people across the state.
“I believe as a thinking individual, if I choose to end my life due to the fact that my life is terminal and I’m in great pain and suffering, I should have the right to do that,” Cochran said.
But the question remains as to whether Michigan is ready for such a change. Opponents include professional groups such as the Michigan State Medical Society, which argues the bill is not compatible with the physician’s roles as healer and caretaker.
“We would rather focus on end-of-life care and making sure the patient is comfortable at their end of life and their needs are met,” said Kevin McFatridge, the director of marketing, communications and public relations for the medical society.
According to medical society policy, patients should not be abandoned once it is determined that a cure is impossible. Multidisciplinary interventions should be sought including special consultation, hospice care, pastoral support and family counseling.
“I think the most important thing is good communication between patient and physician,” McFatridge said.
Even if assisted suicide were to become legal in Michigan, it might be very difficult for some ailing patients to get these services.
“Patients may have a hard time finding someone who is willing and able to do it,” said Thomas Tomlinson, the director of center for ethics and humanities in the life sciences at Michigan State University.
Currently, most physicians work either in a health system or in a large group practice, most of which would prohibit their members from assisting a patient’s death, Tomlinson said.
“I don’t think this has a very good chance of getting through the Legislature — Republican conservative-dominated legislature,” Tomlinson said.
The Michigan Catholic Conference and Michigan Right to Life were firm opponents of a 1990s ballot initiative to legalize physician-assisted-suicide, which failed.
Cochran argued that physicians under the law would be well-trained to decide when a patient was ready for life-ending intervention: “We will be treating you, caring for you and helping you recover from this disease — or you are not able to,” he said.
Tomlinson said it would be important for doctors to offer patients alternatives to assisted suicide, such as hospice or palliative care.
Research shows many people who look into assisted suicide change their minds. According to Oregon’s report, in 2016, 44 percent of people who received lethal doses of medication did not take the pills.
For many concerned patients, “the pills are kind of an insurance policy, so they know they have an exit door,” Tomlinson said. “For many patients, that’s all they want—peace of mind. If things get really too bad, they have a way out.
Rep. Pam Faris, D-Clio, is the co-sponsor of the bill, which was referred to the Committee on Health Policy.