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Death With Dignity Movement Sweeping Nation, Colorado Part Of The Wave

Compassion and Choices
A map showing states considering legislation on physician-assisted suicide.

This fall, the highly publicized death of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer who decided to end her life, brought the "right to die" movement a lot of attention.

Anne Singer, campaigns communications manager at the group Compassion and Choices, which advocates for death with dignity, as it is sometimes called, said the public response has been astonishing.

"Nothing like this has ever happened to our organization before. Our website crashed…the momentum is definitely picking up."

Colorado legislators have announced plans to introduce a physician-assisted suicide bill in 2015, and they're not the only ones. States around the country are debating the issue.

Although this heady moral discussion may seem to come out of nowhere, the ability of terminally-ill adults to end their lives on their own terms has a long history, said Peg Sandeen, who heads the Death With Dignity National Center, based in Portland.

"Oregon's law passed 20 years ago this month," said Sandeen. That state was the first to give terminally-ill residents the right to end their lives.

Looking at the news from two decades back, this right was a hot topic. This was the time of headlines about Jack Kevorkian, also known as "Doctor Death," who was in the news for giving patients who requested it life-ending prescriptions. The 1991 book "Final Exit," by right to die advocate Derek Humphry, was a New York Times best-seller.

"So we had a lot of cultural activity around hastened death, around death with dignity," said Sandeen.

Oregon passed the law by ballot initiative in 1994, and reaffirmed it with a second vote in 1997. From then for about the next 10 years, the law was tied up in the courts. During this time, few states tackled the issue, preferring to wait for it to get legally resolved.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision affirming the law and stating the Department of Justice could not prosecute physicians for prescribing life-ending drugs.

Once physicians were affirmed as protected, Washington State voters passed a ballot initiative similar to Oregon's. Vermont's state legislature passed a similar one in 2013, after about a decade of effort.

Montana and New Mexico both allow assisted suicide on account of decisions in court cases, but because there is not legislation on it, without clear steps to follow, "we don't see a lot of widespread use of the law in those states," said Sandeen.

In the three states with laws, the legislation has nearly identical requirements. Two doctors must be involved, and the patient must be terminally ill with 6 months or less to live. The patient must make a request twice orally and once in written form, and has to go through two waiting periods before getting their prescription.

While Maynard's physician-assisted death has brought a ton of attention to the issue, momentum has been growing in recent years, said Sandeen. In 2013 when Vermont passed its law, the topic was also introduced in the New Jersey and New Hampshire legislatures.

Sandeen, a social worker who has worked on issues around end-of-life decision making for years, said she is glad that Brittany Maynard's public decision has sparked a national discussion.

"One of the most important things about this kind of conversation to me it the conversation that happens around dinner tables, [families members talking] about what is important to them and how they want to live and die."

Those conversations have also reached Democratic Representative Lois Court of Denver. She has been getting calls from people all over the state who "want the dignity of making this final decision."

That's why she and fellow Fort Collins Representative Joann Ginal plan to introduce a bill to address death with dignity. One of the inspirations behind the bill is a constituent name Charlie Selsberg who had ALS and had written a commentary that appeared in The Denver Post encouraging a bill. Court was also moved by her own mother's decade long battle and death from lung disease.

" ...When I went out to California, I said I want to see her," Court said. "My father said, 'no you don't. You want to remember the mother you had, not the mother she has deteriorated into.' And that's a lot of what this is about."

The bill will likely face an uphill battle with Republicans in control of the state Senate – where opposition is already building. Republican State Senator Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, the future chair of the Senate health and human services committee, said that "there is a significant moral responsibility; government has to defend life and preserve life."

The differences between these two viewpoints will play out over the next few months, as Colorado and many other states consider legislation on the issue.

Capitol Reporter Bente Birkeland contributed to this report.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated to correct Lois Court's city of service from Fort Collins to Denver, Colo.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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