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Death with dignity or slippery slope? Senate committee hears end-of-life bill testimony

CONCORD — Faced with suffering at the end of his life, Portsmouth resident Mark Kaplan’s father chose to stop eating and drinking in order to die.

“It wasn’t the kind of conclusion to his life that he would have wished for, nor would any of our family wish that for him,” Kaplan said Wednesday in front of the New Hampshire Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Kaplan said his father would have chosen medical aid in dying, which is why he was testifying in support of . The bill, sponsored by Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, would  for terminally ill people with less than six months to live to choose to die through the self-administration of medicine.

The bill has sparked passions as it has made its way through the New Hampshire Legislature. It passed the House in March . The hearing Wednesday was its first in the Senate and is likely to be its last public hearing before going to the Senate floor for a vote. The committee did not vote on whether to recommend the bill Wednesday.

The bill has , with both Democrats and Republicans voting for and against the bill in the House. On Wednesday, Smith was joined by Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Windham, a cosponsor of the bill, in introducing it to the Senate committee.

Is the use of medical aid in dying a slippery slope?

The “slippery slope” refrain was a common one in the Senate hearing Wednesday.

“My fear that we start with tight parameters and then down the road, we’re just like Canada labeled as worse for the disabled community than under Hitler in World War Two,” said Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead.

Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, said he’s worried about how future legislatures could expand what’s acceptable under the practice.

“I’m really struggling with this bill as to the need for it and the door that it opens,” said Avard. “Once that door opens, I don’t know how you stop it.”

Smith said she agrees with his concerns “100 percent.”

“The fact that you are feeling uneasy or uncomfortable is perfectly appropriate,” she said. “We’re not talking here about whether we want to put a decal on a license plate. I mean, we’re talking about an end-of-life option, and it’s very, very serious.”

End of life has ‘guardrails’

She emphasized the guardrails in the bill. In addition to having less than six months to live, to qualify for medical aid in dying under HB 1283 the individual must be at least 18 years old and be mentally well enough to make a decision and physically well enough to self-administer the medicine. These requirements must be confirmed by two health care providers who meet certain qualifications as well as a mental health professional.

Lynn urged the legislators to trust themselves.

“You make that decision of whether that this bill will ever be expanded,” he said. For example, he said, he would not vote for potential future laws that would extend the six-month requirement.

“This is one option for those people who choose to make sure that they can die peacefully and lovingly and leave their family knowing that they have been able to end their own lives the way they wanted it,” said Smith. “I would much rather that we face this decision honestly, and with integrity and with decency.”

How will the legalization of medical aid in dying affect those with disabilities?

How this legislation has been a central conflict ever since the bill was introduced.

Rep. Chris Muns, D-Hampton, said while he was proud of his mother’s decision to end her life by halting dialysis treatments, he voted against the bill because of his experience as a father to a son with a developmental disability.

“After talking with parents of other atypically abled individuals, the number one question in our minds is what will happen to my child after I’m gone,” he said. “There’s concern that our loved ones may feel pressured or coerced, intentionally or unintentionally into ending their lives prematurely with no one looking out for their best interest.”

He also said that a mental health professional might not have the appropriate experience to make the right call when evaluating someone with autism.

Melinda Simms, a disabled woman with a spinal cord injury and an advocacy coordinator for the United Spinal Association of New Hampshire, said that laws like this “risk abuse” and “could expand to include disabled people who are not terminally ill based on subjective judgements.”

There were also people with disabilities that testified in favor of the bill.

“People with disabilities are not a monolithic group. The largest advocacy groups that claim that they represent all individuals with disabilities and are against this bill are wrong,” said Seth Morgan, who was representing US for Autonomy, a group of people with disabilities advocating for end-of-life options.

According to a study by the University of New Hampshire, 75% of those with disabilities in New Hampshire .

Jill Robinson, a retired disability rights attorney from Walpole who’s been disabled since she had polio at three years old, wrote in her testimony that she understands the position of those in the disabled community against the bill.

“Anything that hints of officially sanctioned death correlating with disability is terrifying,” she wrote, acknowledging the disabled community’s history with ostracization and abuse. “The other side of the coin is that we possibly more than others are too often denied control over our own bodies and our lives and, for that matter, our deaths. I err on the side of seizing control. I’m comfortable that this bill has sufficient safeguards to allow me and no one else to take control of my death.”