LANSING, Mich. — Should a terminally ill patient have the right to die on his or her own terms with the help of a lethal physician-prescribed drug?
The answer is 'yes' for Rep. Tom Cochran, D-Mason, whose years as a professional medic exposed him first-hand to the grim reality many terminally ill patients face, he said.
“It’s about respect for life, because to me death is a part of life," said Cochran, who recently re-introduced legislation seeking to legalize what's commonly known as physician-assisted suicide. "I believe that’s a decision that I should be able to make.”
But Cochran prefers to call it "death with dignity," because his proposal would allow a terminally ill patient to end their life by self-administering a lethal medication without the aide of a physician.
>> READ: More on MI HB 4461 here.
“This is something we need to have the conversation about," he said. "I don’t think it’s a slippery slope, I believe this is very specific to an individual with a terminal illness who would have the choice and their own accord to make the decision.”
A patient would have to live in Michigan and would only be eligible if given six months or less to live, Cochran said. Both a verbal and written request would be required for consideration.
Two physicians would have to sign off on the request, which would have to be witnessed by two other individuals, one of whom could be a relative and the other "who would not at all benefit from your death," Cochran said.
A 15 day waiting period would be required, during which time physicians would determine whether the patient made the request with a "sound mind." A second verbal and written request would then be required to receive the medication.
“There are several safeguards in there," Cochran said. "The physician certainly has a right to opt out; they don’t have to do this."
Dr. Jack Kevorkian is widely seen as the figure who brought the issue of physician-assisted suicide to the forefront of public discourse. Known as 'Dr. Death' in the 1990s, Kevorkian infamously assisted in dozens of suicides in Michigan. He died in 2011 after serving eight years in prison for a second-degree murder conviction.
Critics of the latest proposal credit the Kevorkian case for pushing Michigan ahead of other states in the country in offering other 'end of life' care beyond taking one's own life.
"We were just much more sensitized to it because of the Kevorkian debate," said Ed Rivet, legislative director for Right to Life Michigan. "We’re probably the most advanced state with regard to hospice care and pain management."
Rivet argues the proposal lacks mechanisms to regulate and monitor the lethal drugs being prescribed.
"If the patient never uses them, what happens to a lethal dose of drugs?" Rivet said. “There has been no clamor for it in Michigan because we have done a good job providing the end of life care people really want and people really don’t want to have to kill themselves.”
Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot proposal to legalize physician-assisted suicide in 1998. Cochran says he believes attitudes have changed since then.
Currently, six states allow the practice in some form, including Oregon where 29-year-old Brittany Maynard made headlines by publicly ending her life in 2014 following a terminal brain cancer diagnosis.
Similar legislation has been introduced in the past without success.
A companion bill has also been introduced that would make it a 20-year-old felony to coerce a patient to request life-ending medication.