State House Memo: Live Free or Die state can’t discuss end-of-life issues
It came as a shock that Gov. Maggie Hassan’s first veto was on House Bill 403, which established a legislative committee to study end-of-life decisions. In my many years of observing the State House I’ve never heard of a governor vetoing a study committee.
A study committee closely examines a complex issue through research and by hearing from a variety of experts, citizens and other interested parties. The main benefit of a study committee is that it has the extra time and focus to do this thoroughly and thoughtfully. The committee then issues a report of its findings and recommendations for possible future action.
In the case of HB 403, the report was due Nov. 1. Any recommended legislation would have appeared in 2014, at which time the bill or bills would have gone through their own hearings and votes, including a potential veto by the governor.
I know this bill well, as I am one of its co-sponsors and closely attended its passage through both the House and Senate. It passed the House on a 212-140 vote and sailed through the Senate on a voice vote.
I – and many other legislators – never expected the governor would veto this study committee. We can’t even talk about end-of-life decisions in New Hampshire?
Near the beginning of her veto message, Hassan states: “With any discussion of the complex and emotional issues related to end-of-life decisions, our focus must always be first and foremost on helping all of those in our society to fully live their lives with the dignity that they deserve.” That is true, but what happens if people are so ill that they can no longer “fully live their lives with the dignity that they deserve”? What if a terminally ill citizen wants to end his or her own suffering?
Hassan continues, “In New Hampshire, we have approached these issues very seriously and thoughtfully, always seeking to include the input of those who understand these issues best: doctors, patients, advocates for the elderly and those who experience chronic conditions or disabilities, and the people of New Hampshire.” The House and Senate legislators who would have comprised the study committee would have made a point of soliciting input from the very groups that the governor identifies.
Hassan praises our state’s advance directive law and Senate Bill 170 (another bill I co-sponsored) that she just signed into law to clarify the definition of life-sustaining treatment. She then abruptly concludes by proclaiming that she sees “no need for the study committee outlined by HB 403 and have vetoed the legislation.”
New Hampshire’s advance directive law allows citizens to make decisions about life-sustaining treatment in certain situations. These advance directives are good to have, but do they go far enough? Many states are developing Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST) in which citizens can detail the type of treatment they want or don’t want from paramedics, EMTs and doctors. Without a POLST form, emergency personnel are required to try every possible procedure to sustain your life – even if you do not want such treatment.
We live in a time when the inevitable act of dying can become needlessly prolonged, expensive and agonizing. Many of us have had the sad experience of seeing a suffering friend or family member and thinking, “I hope I never end up like that.” Unfortunately, thanks to modern medical technology and existing laws, you can end up like that.
Some states have initiated physician-assisted suicide laws in which suffering patients with a terminal illness may request lethal medication. In November, Massachusetts voters narrowly defeated their “Death with Dignity Act” by 51-49 percent in a statewide referendum. This May, Vermont joined Oregon, Washington, and Montana by legalizing physician-assisted suicide.
But here, in the Live Free or Die state, Hassan has used her first veto to curtail even discussing end-of-life issues. Such close-mindedness is disappointing.
(State Rep. Rick Watrous lives in Concord.)