INDIANAPOLIS — An Indiana state representative believes Hoosiers with fewer than six months to live due to a terminal-illness diagnosis should have the option of obtaining medication that would allow them to end their lives at a time of their choosing.
State Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, has filed "Death with Dignity" legislation that he hopes will give Indiana residents facing certain death the same end-of-life options available to Americans living in California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia.
"My goal in introducing House Bill 1157 is to start a conversation between legislators and their constituents about end-of-life issues, which are always difficult to discuss," Pierce said.
His plan, which is modeled on the Oregon law in place since 1997, creates a 10-step process, with numerous safeguards, to "ensure that it truly is the decision of the person who is facing the terminal illness as to when they would end their life," he said.
The process would begin when a patient is diagnosed with a terminal illness that will kill the patient within six months.
If the patient is interested in procuring medication to end his or her life, the patient would file a state form explicitly indicating their intent. It must be certified by their doctor and witnessed by two disinterested individuals attesting to the patient's sound mental state and voluntary commitment.
The doctor would have to offer counseling and present end-of-life alternatives, such as hospice care, and the patient would be required to reaffirm his or her desire to obtain death-inducing drugs following a waiting period of at least 15 days after the form was signed.
A second physician then would review the patient's medical records and mental state.
Only if all parties agree that it is the patient's reasoned, voluntary choice to end his or her life would the fatal prescription be written.
Finally, the patient would be required to administer the deadly dose themselves. Pierce's measure makes it a Level 1 felony, similar to murder, if the patient is assisted in ending his or her life.
Bev Hmurovic, of Whiting, president of Compassion and Choices Indiana, said that process has successfully been employed in Oregon for more than two decades to give some 1,100 patients control over when they died.
"What we find when we listen to people with terminal illnesses is that they yearn to live as long and as fully as they can, for as long as their disease allows them a reasonable quality of life," Hmurovic said.
"What they don't want is a prolonged and painful dying process."
She pointed out that just having the option to end their own lives reduces worry and anxiety for terminally ill patients, about a third of whom in Oregon she said go through the process of obtaining a prescription for death-inducing drugs but choose not to fill it.
"This is also about getting doctors and patients to fully discuss end-of-life and treatment options during a terminal illness," Hmurovic said.
Corey Polen, of Brownsburg, knows that in the years ahead, his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, might make his life no longer worth living as neurons in his brain die, which will cause his muscles to shut down.
"There is no sugarcoating any part of this disease," said Polen, who walks with a cane. "My future is not a nice one. Knowing what's to come is torturous."
He observed that Indiana, as a death penalty state, provides humane treatment to end the lives of the worst of the worst criminals.
Shouldn't law-abiding Hoosiers facing unimaginable suffering be allowed access to a similar method if they want to end their own lives, he asked.
"Regardless of one's personal decision on aid with dying, the liberty to choose for those affected will bring great comfort and solace during an agonizing time," Polen said.
"Just knowing that this option is available takes an immeasurable weight off the shoulders of patients like me."
Pierce was unwilling to predict how other Indiana lawmakers will react to his "Death with Dignity" proposal, or evaluate the chances that it will be enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
He said it likely will depend on how much Hoosiers demand action on an issue that almost is certain to affect more of them as the large baby-boomer generation ages and a fraction are diagnosed with a terminal illness.
"I think most legislators recognize there's some controversy around this type of bill, and quite honestly they're nervous about getting out in front of it," Pierce said.
"So what needs to happen is the people of Indiana need to point the way for their legislators on this issue."
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, is one of those legislators aware of the potential controversy tied to Pierce's plan.
Bosma said he finds Pierce's term, "Death with Dignity," to be "a little disturbing," and indicated that he's not likely to support the proposal.
"If it's a euthanasia bill of some sort, I would have to say I'm disinclined to think that's a good idea for Hoosiers," Bosma said.