Thursday, May 2, 2002
Senate kills death-with-dignity bill
Tam, Kim and Hogue change their votes
By Crystal Kua
A bill to legalize assisted suicide in Hawaii failed this afternoon on a vote of 14-to-11 after three state senators, Democrats Rod Tam and Donna Mercado Kim and Republican Bob Hogue changed their votes. The trio were part of a 13-to-12 majority voting favor of the bill on second reading Tuesday.
The state House has already approved the measure, and it had been strongly supported by Gov. Ben Cayetano.
Senators were inundated yesterday with phone calls, e-mail, faxes and visits by those on both sides of the physician-assisted suicide debate in a last-minute lobbying push before the Senate takes a final vote today on the so-called death-with-dignity bill.
The vote went down to the wire in the 25-member Senate.
“It’s anyone’s guess. It really is,” said Scott Foster, communications director of Death with Dignity Hawaii, before the vote.
Senators voted 13-12 to give preliminary approval to House Bill 2487, House Draft 1, which was resurrected Tuesday night when 15 senators voted to yank the bill from Sen. David Matsuura’s Health Committee, where it had been stalled.
Gov. Ben Cayetano, who criticized Matsuura (D, South Hilo) for stalling the bill, pushed for the Senate vote after a federal judge upheld Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law last month — the only law of its kind in the nation and the model for Hawaii’s death-with-dignity bill, which the governor wants to see passed.
The ruling came after U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft challenged the Oregon law last year by putting out a directive banning lethal prescriptions.
Hawaii’s bill describes the procedures and safeguards by which a terminally ill person over the age of 18 can request in writing a prescription of life-ending drugs.
Kelly Rosati, executive director of Hawaii Family Forum, a group against the measure, was also knocking on senators’ doors yesterday.
“I’m meeting with everybody I can. I think there are definitely people that are on the fence.” she said. “My sense is that we’ve made a little headway.”
Rosati said that she hoped her group’s message would help senators decide to vote against it.
“It’s not like there are problems with this and it’s the bottle bill. There are problems with it and this is about life and death.”
At least one senator had said earlier he planned to switch his “yes” vote to a “no.”
Sen. Rod Tam (D, Nuuanu) said that his initial “yes” vote was aimed at continuing the discussion on the controversial issue.
“Upon reviewing the bill, the e-mails, faxes and phone calls, it is my decision that such an important and emotional issue involving life-and-death decisions should not be decided in the short time span we have left in this session,” Tam said in a prepared statement.
But some predicted that at least one senator who voted “no” will vote “yes.”
Rosati credited proponents of the bill with waging a very “stealth” and deliberate campaign to get this bill to the floor.
“They are so tenacious and have been so tenacious on this,” Rosati said.
“And so one of the things we’ve tried to communicate to people (yesterday) is, if you’re opposed to assisted suicide, you need to act now because time has run out. This is the last day.”
Foster said that thousands of supporters — many of them elderly and ill — who made a phone call and sent a letter there made the difference.
“That energy is really what’s been fueling this,” Foster said. “Finally it’s getting a debate. … That’s what we’ve wanted all along. This is a tough issue. Death is a tough issue to talk about.”
Foster said the issue is getting attention from abroad, with national and international media calling him yesterday.
Juliet Begley, a researcher in the governor’s office, was also dropping off information for senators.
“I think this is a very important issue, and people need to know a lot about it,” Begley said. “I think that I’m grateful however it goes. I’m grateful to the governor for taking the courage to say, ‘Yeah, let’s go, let’s do it.'”
Representatives from the Catholic Church were also lobbying senators. Bishop Francis DiLorenzo sent letters urging them to set aside the bill.
Begley said that while the issue drew tears and emotional speeches from senators Tuesday, she hopes the final decision will be based on “dry eyes and an open mind.”