This story appears in both The Paper and the Santa Fe New Mexican through a partnership to bring our readers the best in reporting from the legislature.
Ron Abell turned to his brother and said two last words. “Thank you.”
Then he died.
Just minutes before, the 78-year-old retired journalist — suffering from leukemia, emphysema and other ailments — had mixed a powdery pile of barbiturates in a glass of water and drank it. He was gone within minutes, his sister-in-law, Nancy Abell, recalled. “I have sat with a lot of people who died,” said the retired social worker who, with her husband, Bruce Abell, watched Ron pass away Feb. 11, 2012, in Portland, Ore. “It was the most peaceful death. He had exactly who he wanted with him, he said goodbye exactly how he wanted, and when he was ready, he took a drink, laid back and he was gone.”
Ron Abell had written his own obituary; he gave thanks to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which allows terminally ill people who are mentally competent to ask a doctor to help them die with the use of what one might call a barbiturate cocktail.
The patient, not the doctor, administers the drugs. It’s a concept that is slowly becoming more acceptable around the nation, with a number of states adopting similar laws since Oregon enacted its Death with Dignity Act in the 1990s. Maine, Vermont, New Jersey and the District of Columbia on the East Coast each have some version of the law. On the West Coast, California and Washington followed Oregon’s lead. Montana, Colorado and Hawaii also have passed similar laws.
Now, some say, it’s New Mexico’s turn.
Two House Democrats from Albuquerque have introduced a bill they say would provide a sense of relief to those facing the frightening prospect of dying. House Bill 47, the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act, already has cleared its first legislative hurdle: The House Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-4 Friday to move it on to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration. The bill has stalled on the House side twice before. This time, proponents hope it will reach the finish line—Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk—for her signature. A spokesman for the governor said Friday she would sign the legislation.
The bill is named after the late state Judge Elizabeth Whitefield, who died of cancer in 2018 after lobbying legislators for years to approve a so-called right-to-die bill to help those who are terminally ill and want to end their suffering with dignity. “At the end of the day, just understanding there is an option and knowing you have access to it will absolutely bring peace of mind to our terminally ill — even if they choose not to take advantage of it,” said Elizabeth Armijo, advocacy director for Compassion and Choices, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving patient care at the end of life.
That’s something the New Mexico bill’s two sponsors say they know plenty about.
Rep. Debbie Armstrong, (D-Albuquerque), the primary sponsor, has watched her daughter Erin, just under 40, battle cancer since she was a teenager. Speaking before the committee Friday, Erin spoke in a soft, fighting-against-tears tone about wanting to live while knowing she is going to die.
Speaking of the physical havoc caused to her body by mutations of the cancer and trial drugs, she told the committee: “What scares me is the potential agony of it. These last two years have granted me a few terrifying glimpses into the potential for physical suffering, and I’m afraid at the thought that my final days will be filled, not with loving goodbyes and memories shared with loved ones, but with disorientation and wrenching pain.”
The bill’s co-sponsor, Democratic Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil of Albuquerque, provided equally emotional testimony, talking about the bone cancer that conquered her mother’s body and left her in such pain that she would scream out to God to make it go away.
About a week before her mother died, Hochman-Vigil said, she asked her daughter to help end her life. “It was at that moment that I realized that medical aid in dying is not about philosophy, it’s not about religion — it’s about autonomy, compassion and the ability to live one’s life and end one’s life in a way that they choose,” Hochman-Vigil told the committee.
To proponents, it’s a no-brain, all-heart decision. “Someone we know whose days are numbered should have control over their way of death with dignity and peace, surrounded by family and friends, their loved ones,” Armstrong said in a phone interview last week.
Critics don’t necessarily disagree with that notion. But they say there are other considerations to take into account. Some say the legislation would allow people to play God when it comes to choosing life or death.
Marilyn Golden, a woman with a disability who serves as senior policy analyst for the California-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, can list a number of problems with the legislation. Those wanting to unburden themselves of someone who is dying could find a way to help the person in their care end their life early — perhaps because they want to help end the person’s suffering but maybe because they see a financial advantage, Golden said.
She questions whether pain alone is the main reason people turn to medical aid in dying.”People can’t do things they used to enjoy. They don’t like the burden they put on other people around them,” Golden said. “Even though we are told over and over by proponents this is not a disability issue, it is a disability issue … because people who are terminally ill almost always have a disability issue before death.”
She thinks it would be easy for someone to abuse the system—get a doctor’s approval for life-ending drugs for another person and administer them—even if the patient didn’t want to die early. The bill’s very nature—and the fact that it requires death certificates to list the underlying cause of death as the patient’s terminal illness rather than suicide — makes it difficult to track any potential wrongdoing.
Deacon Steve Rangel, associate director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, has similar concerns. Like Golden, he says there are opportunities for coercion, but his conference’s opposition is more rooted in the Church’s stance on life itself. “The Church has always been a believer in a consistent ethic of life,” he said. “We stand up for life. Whether it be the death penalty, whether it be abortion, euthanasia or suicide, we have been consistent.”
He said the bill sheds light on an “absolutely moral” argument — one that is personal, emotional, and as a result, sensitive to consider and discuss. He, like Golden and some state lawmakers who oppose HB 47, also noted not all medical opinions regarding terminal patients are correct—some patients live far longer than expected and others recover.
Republican lawmakers on the House Health and Human Services Committee also raised concerns Friday about whether the bill would mandate that a health care provider take part in such a procedure. Armstrong repeatedly told them no doctor would be forced to prescribe life-ending drugs. Armstrong, Armijo and others who support the measure said many people in other states who legally obtain end-of-life drugs choose not to use them.
A fiscal impact report on HB 47 said that in the first 20 years of the law in Oregon, 1,545 patients there received prescriptions for aid in dying and 991 used them.
Glenn Buckland of Rio Rancho wants the right to get one of those prescriptions. Two years ago, when he was 55, a diagnosis of leukemia reminded him death is inevitable. And painful. And probably closer than he imagined.
He’s ready for it now. But he wants to go his own way. “Dying — unless you get run over by a bus — is a difficult, complicated process,” the retired businessman said in an interview Thursday.
HB 47, he said, would alleviate a lot of fear and anxiety about the process for people who already have lost so much control of their lives. “Your friendships, your livelihood just shrivels,” he said. “Your world becomes small. On top of that, you have pain and suffering to contend with. “He’s talked with his wife, his three grown children and his doctor about his wish to end his life with self-administered drugs. “That’s not a bad way to die,” he said. “You get tired, fall asleep, fall into a coma and you are done.”
Thinking back on the way her brother-in-law died, Nancy Abell, who now lives in Santa Fe, said she’s not sure what she would do if she were in his shoes. “Would I make the same choice as Ron?” she asked. “I don’t know. Would I want the right to make that choice? Absolutely. That’s what this law gives people — the option. It’s not the actual using it, it’s the knowledge that it’s there. “It’s a ‘peace of mind’ law.”