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Should Illinois become 11th state to adopt 'right to die' legislation?

An older woman with light colored eyes and short, graying hair looks out a window.
Ashlee Rezin
/
Chicago Sun-Times
Lombard resident Deb Robertson, 65, who has been diagnosed with terminal neuroendocrine carcinoma, advocates for right-to-die legislation in Illinois. The proposed bill would allow a mentally capable, terminally ill adult with a prognosis of six months or less the option to obtain prescription medication that would end their life.

Illinois Senate Democrats are moving forward on legislation that would give mentally capable patients who are terminally ill an option of ending their own lives.

The “medical aid in dying” measure, sponsored by State Sens. Laura Fine, D-Glenview, and Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, would allow terminally ill adults with a prognosis of six months or less to obtain prescription medication that they can self-ingest to end their lives. It was filed in the General Assembly Thursday evening.

The push for the legislation in Illinois began last fall — and has been attempted in years past. But advocates, including ACLU of Illinois, are hoping legislators approve it this time around in the spring session.

The bill would allow qualified individuals, not medical professionals, to self-administer a medication to end their lives. It also would require doctors to inform patients about all of their end-of-life options, including hospice, palliative care and pain control.

Patients would have to give two verbal requests for the medication — with a five-day waiting period between the first and second request. A written request would also be required.

And no physician, health care provider or pharmacist would be required to participate in the law — offsetting concerns from doctors and hospitals operating in institutions affiliated with religious organizations.

Similar measures have been passed in 10 states and Washington D.C. In Oregon, where it was authorized in 1997, there have been no “substantiated” cases of abuse or coercion, according to proponents of the Illinois legislation.

Deb Robertson, a Lombard woman who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2020, is advocating for the measure — and said she would choose to end her life with medication if the law passes.

“I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to be laying in a bed. I don’t want to have my family being sad and upset and seeing me deteriorate and then be in pain,” Robertson, 65, said in an October interview with the Sun-Times.

“I know it’s going to be painful when it’s time and I know I don’t want to be remembered as someone who’s in pain and miserable,” she said. “I want to be vibrant and just like myself. I want them to remember me as me now.”

Robertson, who worked with homeless youth for more than 30 years, was forced into retirement after her diagnosis. Passing a measure in Illinois has become her main focus — with the help of Compassion & Choices, a group coalescing around end-of-life legislation across the country, and Compassion & Choices Action Network.

Robertson has been undergoing chemotherapy for two years. She stopped for a bit when it became unbearable. She said she feels she is deteriorating — and members of a support group she’s in with the same form of rare cancer around the world have already died.

Robertson calls the passage of the Illinois measure one of her dying wishes.

“I think that because I believe so much in this, I think, I really believe part of the reason I’m still here is because of that,” Robertson said. “Because I accept the fact that I might not be around when this — I’m going to be optimistic and say when this gets passed. At least I know that I’ve done everything that I can, to leave a legacy of something that’s important, something that’s needed, to change this way. It’s long overdue.”

With their two dogs watching, Deb Robertson, 65, who has been diagnosed with terminal neuroendocrine carcinoma, cooks dinner for her wife last week in their Lombard home. Robertson is an advocate for right-to-die legislation in Illinois, which would allow a mentally capable, terminally ill adult with a prognosis of six months or less the option to obtain a prescription medication that would end their life.
Ashlee Rezin
/
Chicago Sun-Times
With their two dogs watching, Deb Robertson, 65, who has been diagnosed with terminal neuroendocrine carcinoma, cooks dinner for her wife last week in their Lombard home. Robertson is an advocate for right-to-die legislation in Illinois, which would allow a mentally capable, terminally ill adult with a prognosis of six months or less the option to obtain a prescription medication that would end their life.

Amy Sherman, Midwest Advocacy Director for Compassion & Choices, has been advocating for the issue since 1994, when the first Oregon measure passed. Sherman is part of a statewide coalition called the Illinois End of Life Options Coalition, which also includes the ACLU and Final Options Illinois. 

Sherman said the measure is about alleviating suffering and bodily autonomy.

“This is their death and it’s how they die,” Sherman said. “They’re already dying. It’s wholly voluntary for both the person and the medical providers. There’s no mandate involved in this,” Sherman said.

She also fought back any characterizations that the measure would be a Dr. Jack Kevorkian-esque form of physician-assisted suicide. Kevorkian, a euthanasia advocate, was found guilty of second-degree murder for the death of a 52-year-old terminal man.

According to the National Institutes of Health, from 1998 to 2018 in states that legalized medical aid in dying, 66.3% of patients who were prescribed life-ending medication took it, and 63% of those patients had cancer.

“It’s not euthanasia, which is when a third-party, typically a health care provider, administers the medication,” Sherman said. “...With medical aid in dying, the person self-ingests the medication and that can be done through a drinking compound or it could be done with hitting the plunger for feeding or even a rectal catheter.”

Sherman said the legislation would ensure those who used medical aid in dying would list “terminal illness” as a cause of death, not suicide — which would impact life insurance policies among other issues.

The Illinois bill would require that patients live in Illinois. But other states have different requirements. Vermont last year became the first state in the country to allow terminally ill people from out of state to utilize their law to end their lives.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed a measure that removed a residency requirement for the measure — which had been in place since 2013 through a binding referendum. Oregon has also removed its residency requirement.

Opposition to such measures exists. The Archdiocese of Chicago references Catholic catechisms against aid-in-dying measures. And Access Living, which helps advocate for people with disabilities, is also staunchly opposed to the bill.

The group said “aid in dying is not a real choice” for people with disabilities.

“There are already choices in place in Illinois that give people control over the end of their lives: advance directives, right-to-refuse treatment, and so forth. We all deserve good choices at the end of life, but the aid-in-dying choice for a few will shift Illinois healthcare into a state of very risky unintended consequences for people with disabilities,” Access Living spokeswoman Amber Smock said in an email.

The Catholic Conference of Illinois in 2020 helped gather a coalition of advocates to oppose such a measure in Illinois. The coalition calls it “assisted suicide” and argues that terminal diagnoses are not always fatal, that legalizing it increases the overall number of suicides, and that it “rejects the healing role of physicians,” among other concerns.

A spokesperson for the Catholic Conference on Thursday said it will once again oppose the latest measure. 

Tina Sfondeles is the chief political reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times
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