Patrick Gannon: Death and dying issues on NC agenda

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 21, 2015

RALEIGH – If you had a fatal disease, would you want to try experimental drugs if there was a chance they would save your life, even if they might kill you sooner? Or would you consider ending your own life if you were in great pain with no chance of recovery?

Those are among the weighty issues legislators are considering in Raleigh. They are morbid topics, but activity around these issues nationwide has ripened them for discussion here.

A bill filed in the General Assembly, called the “Death with Dignity Act,” would allow terminally ill patients within six months of death to take drugs prescribed by doctors to end their lives. You’ve probably heard about Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer who garnered worldwide attention when she moved from California to Oregon last year so she could legally take her own life. She did so Nov. 1.

The bill, sponsored by several House Democrats, includes many requirements before a doctor could prescribe the fatal dose.

The bill’s language is eerie in its descriptions of the finality of such an action. Before getting the medication, a dying person would have to fill out an application, titled “Request for medication to end my life in a humane and dignified manner.”

The patient would initial various statements on the application, including that he or she understands the “full import of this request, and I expect to die when I take the medication to be prescribed.” Another statement asks if the patient understands that “although most deaths occur within three hours, my death may take longer and my physician has counseled me about this possibility.”

According to the Oregon-based Death with Dignity National Center, three states have such laws – Oregon, Washington and Vermont. In Oregon, where the law took effect in 1997, 105 terminally ill patients used the law to end their lives in 2014, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services.

“Death with Dignity” laws are opposed by many religions, including the Roman Catholic Church. Other opponents say doctors can make mistakes in diagnoses, that some people would choose death because of the cost of medical treatment and because unethical doctors might help people die for the wrong reasons.

North Carolina’s bill was referred to a House judiciary committee, where legal issues are discussed. It hasn’t been heard.

A second bill, which appears to have a greater chance of becoming law this year, would allow dying patients to get access to non-FDA-approved experimental drugs as a last-ditch effort to save their lives, when traditional medicines and treatments have failed. A House committee last week endorsed the legislation, called the “Right to Try Act,” which is modeled after similar legislation that has become law recently in about a dozen other states. It’s now headed to another House committee.

Under the bill, eligible patients would have to be terminally ill, as attested by a doctor, and considered all other treatment options approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Any drug made available by manufacturers must have successfully completed the initial phase of a clinical trial. The “Right to Try” effort is being led nationally by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank based in Arizona. Proponents of such laws say sick people shouldn’t need government approval to try to save their own lives.

Critics say providing experimental drugs can create a false sense of hope and may be more likely to harm than help patients and could hasten their deaths. Others contend the legislation won’t help anyone because it doesn’t require pharmaceutical companies to provide the medication to patients and the companies might not be willing to offer experimental drugs because of high costs and other concerns.

This year on Jones Street, life and death issues are on the agenda, too.

Gannon writes columns for Capitol Press Association.