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House Committee Fails To Take Action On Assisted Suicide Bill

Arkansas Legislature

An Arkansas House committee failed to take action on a bill would allow physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. The proposal would have allowed patients who have a disease verified by the appropriate physician as life ending, the option to seek medication that would kill them.

Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, presented the bill to the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee on Tuesday. He said it would just give another option of care for patients who are suffering.

"For a terminally ill patient, who is scared of the pain and suffering that they might go through, they want the option available to give them comfort. If it gets too bad, I have the option to end the suffering for myself and for my family and it’s totally, with this bill, it’s totally their decision," Douglas said.

Many lawmakers had questions concerning the bill, including Rep. Fredrick Love, D-Little Rock, who said this before asking one of his questions.

"I’ll tell you Rep. Douglas, you’ve brought us a tough one. I’ll say that," Love said. 

Love asked the difference between the type of physician-assisted suicide outlined in the bill and a "do not resuscitate" order. According to Karen Smith, a registered nurse who spoke on behalf of the bill, an assisted suicide action would be before something happened to a patient, as opposed to a "do not resuscitate," which would occur after. Douglas did say the two decisions were similar.

"With this compassionate care, end of life option, you have the same thing except you are in control of it. You’re not on the machine. You’re not incapable of making that decision and writing it out," Douglas said.

Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, had a question concerning health insurance and a company’s potential decision to choose to insure assisted suicide over longer term solutions.

"In Oregon and California, there have been...documented cases where the health insurer, where the state plan chose to pay for the physician assisted suicide option, rather than life sustaining therapy. Is there something in this bill that ensures that that doesn’t happen in Arkansas?" Boyd asked. "From my perspective as a pharmacist, I’ve seen insurers take what appears to me as the less expensive route."

Douglas said this bill did not have such language prohibiting insurers from doing that.

Another question concerned what defines as a “relatively short time” which is the amount listed in the bill that would qualify a patient to request physician-assisted suicide. Douglas said he was open to amending the bill to have that time period defined as six months or fewer.

Multiple health care professionals spoke against the legislation. One of them was Dr. David Smith who works as palliative physician. He said the care of those dying is based on a system of trust, and that physician-assisted suicide destroys that trust.

"Physician-assisted suicide can make doctors dangerous. It’s wrong to assume that physicians are always ideal moral agents. They are not. I have doctors that I’ve allowed to take care of my own family. Unfortunately, I have doctors that I work who I’d be afraid to take care of my dog. It takes no real skill to kill," Smith said.

The committee chose not to make a motion on the bill after debating and hearing testimony on it for over an hour.

Sarah Kellogg was a Politics and Government reporter for KUAR from November 2018- August 2021.