Colorado joins 5 states to allow physician-aided death for terminally ill

Gaby Galvin

Colorado overwhelmingly passed Tuesday an aid-in-dying measure that will allow terminally ill patients to take their own lives with medication prescribed by physicians.

Proposition 106's decisive win means Colorado will join Oregon, Washington, California, Montana and Vermont in legalizing "death with dignity," as it is known to proponents. They argue that allowing terminally ill patients to choose the manner and time of their deaths afford them control, dignity and peace of mind during their final days.

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Based on Oregon's 1994 law, Proposition 106 requires a mentally competent patient to have the approval of two doctors and less than six months to live in order to receive life-ending medication. Doctors must also discuss alternatives and safe storage, tracking and disposal of lethal drugs, in case the patient changes his or her mind.

"Today is bittersweet for our family," said Melissa Hollis Brenkert, who watched her sister die from a painful brain tumor. "Passage of Prop 106 means that Coloradans will now have options when facing pain and suffering at the end of their lives."

Recent research shows that the majority of patients who choose to end their own lives through medication do so for peace of mind more than pain. In Washington and Oregon, which have both released data about patient motivation, people were primarily concerned about the loss of autonomy and the burden on loved ones. Only 25 percent of Oregon patients and 36 percent of Washington patients were concerned about pain.

"It's almost never about pain," said California physician Lonny Shavelson, who specializes in the care of the terminally ill. "It's about dignity and control."

Opponents of the measure say physician-assisted dying is morally wrong, doesn't require a doctor to be present at the time of death and that doctors can make mistakes on prognosis. In Colorado, they say the act targets the elderly and people with disabilities.

"We are deeply disappointed and concerned about Colorado legalizing doctor-assisted suicide," said Jeff Hunt, vice president of public policy for Colorado Christian University. "The fight is not over."

While Montana does not have an aid-in-dying statute, the measure is legal through the state's Supreme Court. A bill prohibiting aid-in-dying failed in the state's legislature in 2011 and 2015. While Colorado was the only state with an aid-in-dying measure on the ticket Tuesday, the District of Columbia and 17 other states are also considering aid-in-dying legislation this year.

"My dad wanted this option for peace of mind in his dying days and, ultimately, for the opportunity of a gentle passing," said Julie Selsberg, who worked on the campaign. "Now we know that Coloradans believe that offering the option of medical aid in dying is the kind, compassionate, safe and just thing to do."