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The state House in 2002 passed a similar assisted-suicide bill backed by then-Gov. Ben Cayetano by a 30-20 vote, but the measure failed in the Senate in the final days of session, with senators voting 14-11 to shelve it. Senate President Robert Bunda, D-22nd (North Shore, Wahiawa), yesterday said the Senate would give the bill a fair shot, but that it's hard to say whether it would pass. Also, Gov. Linda Lingle has said that she is against physician-assisted suicide, calling it a "slippery slope" that could lead to euthanasia. The "death-with-dignity" bill would allow terminally ill, mentally competent patients to obtain a lethal dose of medication that they would take themselves. A doctor would determine the competency of the patient. More than 150 people spoke before the committee or submitted written testimony, which underscored the divided opinions even within the healthcare community and religious organizations. Those who supported the bill said terminally ill patients should be given the ability to choose how they die and that the proposed law has safeguards against abuse. Opponents said allowing physician-assisted suicide would make patients feel they have an obligation to die and would hinder efforts to improve end-of-life care. Kona resident Sammie Stanbro urged lawmakers to support the bill and talked about how her late 60-year-old husband, Phil, suffered from cancer that spread to his bones. She said he had tried unsuccessfully to take his own life by overdosing on his medicine. Stanbro said her husband was paralyzed from the waist down, requiring family members to turn him in bed and change him. Despite hospice care and pain medication, he still suffered from bouts of pain, she said. "He wanted to be able to end his life when he wanted to," she said. But physician-assisted suicide will lead to uncontrollable abuse because the bill's safeguards are inadequate to protect people, particularly the elderly, from those who would benefit from their deaths, said Jackie Mishler, a registered nurse. "I oppose physician-assisted suicide because we should treat pain and suffering, not avoid it by killing the sufferer," Mishler said. "That cheap and dirty fix will ultimately undermine real compassion, take away funding and interest in pain management, and create a host of new victims among the disabled, the underserved, and those who can't speak for themselves." Chris Nienczyk, a graduate student who has cerebral palsy, said that allowing physician-assisted suicide is "frightening, especially for persons with disabilities" who have been dealing with medical conditions all of their lives. Policymakers are talking about the terminally ill today, but tomorrow the discussion might turn to Alzheimer's patients or people with disabilities, he said. Dr. Leonard Howard, past president of and speaking for the Hawaii Medical Association, said physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally inconsistent with a doctor's role as a healer. He said significant progress is being made to educate doctors and other healthcare professionals about pain management and end-of-life care. Robert "Nate" Nathanson, a retired physician and founder of Hawaii Physicians for Assisted Dying, said doctors must respect a patient's right to self-determination in end-of-life choices when all other reasonable efforts to relieve suffering have failed. He said a small percentage of patients want help in hastening their death, but it is a "major blessing" for the few who do. The Rev. John Heidel of Religious Leaders for Assisted Dying, made up of 15 leaders of Buddhist, Jewish and Christian faiths, said the issue is a matter of personal choice. "Just as we should be free to worship according to our individual understanding of faith, we should have the freedom in making our own end-of-life choices," he said. Oregon is the only state where terminally ill patients can legally obtain lethal prescriptions from their doctors. The House bill prohibits mercy killings, lethal injections and euthanasia and requires physicians to counsel patients on alternatives, including comfort care, hospice care and pain control. Patients with mental illness would not be allowed to receive lethal medicine. Qualified patients also would be required to make an oral request and a written request to their physicians and would also have to ask the physician again at least 15 days after their initial oral request. The committee yesterday amended the bill to strengthen residency requirements to prevent people from coming here to take advantage of the law. Before voting, committee members discussed their feelings about the issue. Rep. Cynthia Thielen, R-50th (Kailua, Mokapu), choked up as she talked about caring for her mother, who had cancer. "I don't know if she would have chosen to use death with dignity, but I strongly believe that she should have been afforded that choice," Thielen said. Rep. Alex Sonson, D-35th (Waipahu, Crestview) said he was not convinced that safeguards were adequate. Rep. Joe Souki, D-8th (Wailuku, Waiehu), said the faith he belongs to is against suicide. "But I cannot, in good faith, transfer the personal feelings that I have ... on other faiths and other people that may have different feelings." Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8070.