By Michael Benanav
Glenn Buckland doesn’t expect to live much beyond March.
The 56-year-old small-business owner from Rio Rancho, New México was diagnosed with plasma cell leukemia in April 2019 and chose to stop chemotherapy last fall.
“It got to a place where I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t get up … without being in excruciating pain. So, I made the decision to stop because I’m just kind of indifferent to the outcome of it. I want to be present and enjoy what’s going on right now. I’m not chasing life,” said Buckland.
When that’s no longer possible, Buckland would like some help, or at least some choice in the matter.
If House Bill 47 passes the New México State Legislature, he will have that choice. The Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act would allow doctors to prescribe medication to “bring about a peaceful death” for patients with a “disease or condition that is incurable and irreversible and that … will result in death within six months.”
Advocates of the legislation are quick to differentiate it from suicide. They describe it as a legitimate choice made by someone who knows that the end of life is near and wants to leave the world on his or her own terms, without excess suffering.
The Catholic Church disagrees, viewing the distinction as nothing more than semantic trickery.
“The Catholic Church believes that suffering brings you closer to God. Well, that’s their business — that’s not how my God works,” explained Buckland. “For a person to be able to control that and do it on their terms … when you’ve been through the experience of getting the diagnosis and the treatments and having ports put in, you feel like you don’t have control over anything, and so here you are at your most vulnerable and you can’t even control how you die — all you can do is lay here and suffer and suffer. So, where’s the compassion in that?”
Efforts to pass an end-of-life options act in New México began in earnest five years ago, after the state Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that the right to medical aid in dying isn’t guaranteed by New México’s constitution.
The bill now making its way through the Roundhouse is the third legislative effort since then to secure that right. A similar proposal was narrowly defeated in 2017, and a 2019 version was pulled before it received a full floor vote. If this one passes, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has signaled that she will sign it.
“I’ve been in health care for 45 years … in hospice and geriatrics, including doing end-of-life caregiving and witnessing death for a number of family and friends. I’ve seen great suffering, and found myself, as much as I hated to say goodbye, with a sense of relief that they were no longer suffering,” said Debbie Armstrong, state representative, Albuquerque, and sponsor of the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act.
“I also have an adult daughter who’s had cancer since she was a teenager, that’s now advanced Stage 4, and I do not want her to suffer. So it’s now even more personal, that she have the option when the time comes to die with dignity and with control over the end of her life. She is a supporter. Her father also has cancer; it’s in remission now, but he contemplated moving to another state that had [legal aid in dying] — that’s an act of desperation, leaving all your family and support to go somewhere where you can control the end of your days,” explained Armstrong. “I’ve followed the Oregon law for a long time, and the reports from there. Many people get [the medication] and don’t even take it. Just the fact that they get it and have control relieves that extreme anxiety that adds to the suffering. We call this the End-of-Life Options Act, not an aid-in-dying act, because it requires that the provider explains what all the options are so that people are not just making a rash decision out of suffering that could be managed.
“Studies also show that where this is legal, there is greater use of hospice, because doctors have to talk to you about it and people are asking about it, so there is, I think, a better quality of care overall at the end of life when you have all the options on the table. We’ve got a wide coalition statewide. I think we’re going to have the votes,” she said.
Currently, eight other states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical aid in dying, and Montana’s courts have ruled that doctors there aren’t forbidden from providing it. Oregon, the earliest adopter, reported that in 2019, 188 people chose to end their lives under its Death with Dignity Act. The figure accounted for about one-half of one percent of all deaths in the state that year.
“The Catholic Church believes that suffering brings you closer to God. Well, that’s their business — that’s not how my God works.”
Compassion & Choices, a national advocacy organization based in Oregon, anticipates that 25 more states may introduce similar bills this year, though most are not expected to pass.
As written, the New México legislation requires an imminent terminal diagnosis. In addition, the patient must be of sound mind, make the request voluntarily, and be able to self-administer the medication. The proposed law provides a waiting period of 48 hours before the prescription can be filled; once it is, patients are free to choose to take or not take it. For those who do, the cause of death will be listed as “underlying terminal illness.”
Michael Benanav is a writer, photographer and digital storyteller based in northern New México. Searchlight New Mexico is a non-partisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New México.
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