Colorado Democrats face intraparty challenge on new ‘right-to-die’ legislation


AURORA | Legislation allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives with doctor-prescribed drugs has been introduced again this year in Colorado, where supporters hope to capitalize on California’s recent passage of a ‘right-to-die’ law.

But it will be a challenging task for Colorado Democrats sponsoring the emotionally charged proposal with the 2016 election looming and control of both chambers of the Legislature at stake. Most of the opposition to the bill comes from Republicans, but Democratic bill sponsors also face convincing members of their own party.

Joann Ginal
Joann Ginal

State Rep. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, one of the lawmakers sponsoring the bill, said one important change in the bill language this year is that it’s no longer called the “death with dignity” bill, but instead the “end-of-life options” act. 

“This was addressed in 2015 when the bill did not pass out of committee,” she said.  Last year, the bill lost on an 8-to-5 bipartisan vote in the Public Health and Human Services Committee in the state House.

Ginal said the new language reflects that there are many ways to die with dignity that include hospice and palliative care.

This year’s bill — like last year’s — is modeled after Oregon’s law, requiring two doctors to sign off on their oral and written requests to end their lives. The patients also need to be found to be mentally competent and be able to administer the life-ending medication themselves. The patients also need to live in Colorado to qualify for the program.

Last year, opponents worried the medication prescribed to dying patients can be easily accessible to others.

Ginal said this year’s bill includes better safety measures for the storage and disposal of the medication. She also said the bill clarifies that coroners would state the cause of death to be the patient’s underlying illness on a death certificate.

Opponents of the legislation have argued that it facilitates suicide in cases where a doctor’s diagnosis may be wrong.

Dianne Primavera
Dianne Primavera

“I support the concept, but the devil is in the details,” said Democratic Rep. Dianne Primavera, a cancer survivor representing Broomfield who opposed the measure last year.

She said last year she voted against the bill because it did not specify whether or not the patient had pursued treatment before requesting  the life-ending medication.

“Twenty-eight years ago, I was told by three or four different oncologists I would not live five years,” she said. That was before she said she started undergoing her own cancer treatment.

She said she was also moved to oppose the bill after hearing testimony from some disability rights groups who were against it.

“Oftentimes there are limited services for people with disabilities. They feel they are a burden on their families, and might opt to end their lives to help out their families,” she said of the legislation’s potential consequences. 

She said she has not made up her mind as to how she will vote this year, but plans to listen to the testimony and how it is received by disability rights groups. 

The same bill has been introduced in the state Senate, and is sponsored by Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill last year making his state the fifth where physician-assisted deaths are legal, and that has made proponents of right-to-die legislation optimistic about possible successes elsewhere. The other states that allow patients to seek a doctor’s help in dying are Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico.

Michael Marrifield
Michael Marrifield

“We’ve been cautious about putting as many safeguards in as possible and following the examples of other states,” said Merrifield.

Some of those safeguards include requiring patients to make two oral requests and a written request to a physician to obtain the life-ending medication, and the ability of the patient to rescind the request at any time, regardless of his or her mental state.

Under the measure, health care providers are not required to prescribe aid-in-dying medication, and a health care facility can prohibit a physician from writing a prescription for a resident of the facility who intends to use it there.

Merrifield said he was moved to introduce the legislation in the Senate after seeing his own father pass away from prostate cancer.

“My father died an excruciating, messy death when I stayed with him the last month of his life,” Merrifield said. 

Last year, the legislature saw testimony from from more than 100 people. Aurora resident Bill Duncan said he plans to testify in support of the bill this year.

Duncan said he is in good health but is concerned about what his own end-of-life options could be if he ever faces that difficult decision. 

“If somebody is terminally ill, they should have right to say, ‘I don’t want to go through six months of chemo,’” he said.

HB1054 will be heard Feb. 4 by the House Judiciary committee. SB16 has been assigned to Senate State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee, where it is due to be heard Feb. 3.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.