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Legal Learning: Terminally ill deserve compassion, choices

Recently, I received a survey from CompassionAndChoices.org with 10 law-related questions. Here are some of the questions:

• Do you believe that mentally competent, terminally ill adults should be able to obtain aid in dying from their physicians?

• Should physicians or family members be criminally prosecuted for supporting such patients in seeking a painless, dignified and humane death?

• Do you favor passage of legislation legalizing physician-assisted dying and protecting doctors and loved ones from prosecution?

• Do you believe that Medicare should reimburse doctors when their patients request a voluntary consultation about end-of-life care?

And I thought to myself, "These are no-brainers." Everyone I talk to supports the idea that people should be able to die with the help of their doctor, without needless suffering, when they are ready to do so. So what's the problem?

More than 10 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Gonzales v. Oregon, 546 U.S. 243 (2006), holding that the United States Attorney General can't enforce the federal Controlled Substance Act against physicians who prescribed drugs, in compliance with Oregon state law, to terminally ill patients seeking to end their lives.

The vote was 6-3, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing the majority opinion (joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer). They ruled that the law does not give the attorney general the power to interfere with physicians obeying a state law. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Several other states have followed Oregon's lead: Washington, Montana, Vermont, California, Colorado and Washington, D.C. But, Minnesota has not, so far. This is despite the fact that 73 percent of Minnesotans support legislation to authorize medical aid in dying for terminally ill adults (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll, September 2016). And, support crosses political party lines — 87 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of independents and 53 percent of Republicans were in favor, as well as 71 percent of Minnesota Catholics.

Bills called the "End of Life Option Act" have been introduced in the Minnesota Senate and House, but the bills are bottled up in each body's Health and Human Services Committee. In the Senate, the bill is called S.F. 1572, sponsored by Sen. Chris Eaton of Brooklyn Center and four other DFLers. In the House, it is called H.F. 1885, sponsored by Rep. Mike Freiberg of Golden Valley and 19 other DFLers, including Rep. Jennifer Schultz of Duluth.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, the minority leader and our senator, told me that "the bill has been unable to even get a hearing ... I think it's unlikely to move forward. Everyone is pretty concerned how a 'yes' vote could be framed in the next campaign."

This should not be a partisan issue. The bill is well-written, with appropriate safeguards; Minnesotans overwhelmingly support it; and the U.S. Supreme Court has given the green light. What are we waiting for?

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate. He handles family law, wills and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer.

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