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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 8, 2007

Hearing passionate on death with dignity

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By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Rep. Josh Green, right, a physician and chairman of the House Health Committee who opposes the death-with-dignity bill, listens to testimony.

Photos by REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Ah Quon McElrath, 91, of Kaimuki, and Jory Watland attended the hearing on the death-with-dignity bill at the state Capitol yesterday evening. McElrath spoke in favor of the measure.

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Suzi Coy said she watched as her mother withered from Alzheimer's disease and as her father, a fundamentalist Christian, suffered so terribly with cancer that he questioned his own faith at the end.

"Do you want your beloved people to die like this?" Coy, of Palolo, asked state House lawmakers last night at a hearing on physician-assisted suicide.

But Patricia Lockwood, who has multiple sclerosis and gets around with the aid of a wheelchair and her guide dog, Stanley, said the state should be talking about how to help the disabled have productive lives rather than giving them options on how to die.

"I just don't think that's right," Lockwood, of Chinatown, said.


State Rep. Josh Green, D-6th (N. Kona, Keauhou, Kailua-Kona), chairman of the House Health Committee, held the hearing to give people a chance to debate the emotional issue despite his own objections and the fact that there were likely not enough votes in his committee to pass the bill.

After listening to four hours of often painful depictions of illness and how best to preserve dignity at the end of life, the committee voted 5-2 to hold the bill. A similar bill has been introduced in the state Senate, however, so there is a possibility for further debate this session.

Green, a Big Island emergency-room doctor, wanted newer lawmakers to have an opportunity to hear the arguments, since a physician-assisted suicide bill has not received a hearing at the Legislature since 2005 and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Oregon law in January 2006.

Oregon is the only state that allows a doctor to help end the life of someone who is terminally ill. The Bush administration had tried to overturn the law by claiming it is illegal for doctors to prescribe lethal doses to patients because that would not be a legitimate medical practice.

Green said his opinion has been influenced by overwhelming opposition to the bill among the disabled and in the medical community. The Hawai'i Medical Association, like the American Medical Association, is opposed to physician-assisted suicide.

"My personal opinion is that this is not right for Hawai'i," Green said last night.


State Rep. Della Au Belatti, D-25th (Tantalus, Makiki, McCully), one of several freshman lawmakers on the committee, said the hearing caused her to rethink her strong support for the bill. But she said she wished the committee had passed the bill along so the full House could have a debate.

"I am concerned about the long-term societal effects it might have," she said.

Dozens of people came to testify at the hearing at the state Capitol auditorium, including several in wheelchairs. Many shared their personal experiences with dying loved ones or their moral and religious stands against taking human life under any circumstances.


Several doctors told lawmakers that physician-assisted suicide violates their obligation not to harm or abandon their patients.

Most of the testimony was in opposition, including statements from Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, Honolulu City Councilman Gary Okino and state Board of Education member Breene Harimoto.

Daniel Fischberg, a palliative care physician, said there are intelligent and compassionate arguments on both sides of the issue. He said that along with being a doctor, he is a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, but disagrees with the group's support for physician-assisted suicide.

"This is not a libertarian issue," Fischberg said. "This is not about giving a new right to our citizens."

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.