Just before Lila Sapinsley died last year at the age of 92, she was working on legislation that would allow terminally ill patients to manage their own deaths via medication prescribed by a physician.
Sapinsley was a political mainstay in Rhode Island. Active since the 1960s, she was the first female Senate Minority Leader. After leaving the Senate, she remained active and was well known for her work on health care access, protecting civil liberties, promoting open government, and engaging young students.
The first resolution introduced in the Rhode Island Senate this session offered condolences on the passing of Lila Sapinsley, who died on Dec. 9.
Since 2003, Rhode Island’s Butler Hospital has awarded the Lila M. Sapinsley Award to an individual who has provided outstanding leadership and community service to improve the lives of people and families affected by mental illness.
To honor her last request, Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-Dist. 3, Providence) has introduced the Lila Manfield Sapinsley Compassionate Care Act (2015-S 0598), which would provide a legal mechanism for suffering, terminally ill patients who decide to hasten their own death through medication prescribed by a physician.
“Lila cared deeply about this issue,” said Senator Goldin. “So it’s only proper that the legislation she fought so hard to create should bear her name. Lila Sapinsley worked tirelessly all her life to make things better for people, and I’m only too proud to introduce this legislation in the same chamber where she once so graciously served.”
The bill would guarantee a terminal patient’s right to manage one’s own death as long as several criteria have been met, including a documented oral request of a physician, followed by a second oral request no sooner than 15 days later. The physician would be required to offer the patient an opportunity to rescind the request, and the patient would have to submit a written request signed in the presence of two witnesses.
Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence) has sponsored identical legislation (2015-H 5507) in the House. It will be heard by the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare on Wednesday at the rise of the House (about 4:30 p.m.) in the House Lounge on the second floor of the State House.
“I know Lila felt strongly about this bill and wanted to ensure that the rights and wishes of patients were recognized and protected,” said Representative Ajello. “That’s why at least one of the witnesses may not be a relative, heir, staff of any facility where the patient resides, or any other person who could benefit from the death.”
In addition, the physician would have to determine that the patient was suffering from a terminal condition, was making an informed decision, and that the patient was a Rhode Island resident. The physician would also have to inform the patient of treatment options, hospice care options, and the result of taking the medication, including potential risks.
Also, the opinion of a second physician would be required for confirmation of the diagnosis and prognosis. The physician would have to verify that the patient did not have impaired judgment.
Lila Sapinsley’s daughter, Pat Sapinsley, spoke in favor of the legislation, saying “As difficult a subject as end-of-life issues may be, my mother was not the type to shy away from difficult subjects. She saw an opportunity to help others to maintain some dignity and alleviate suffering and she was moved to action. My sisters and I can think of no better way to honor our mother’s legacy than to pass this courageous bill.”
Under the proposed legislation, no doctor, nurse or other person would be subject to any criminal or civil penalty for providing the prescription.
No doctor, nurse or other person would be legally required to prescribe a lethal dose of medication for a patient.
Health care facilities would be allowed to prohibit physicians from writing prescriptions for lethal doses of medication for patients who are residents of the facility.
Oregon marked the 20th anniversary of its Death With Dignity Law in January. Since the law was enacted, 1,173 residents have qualified for lethal prescriptions, and 752 patients have used them, according to The Oregonian. A majority suffered terminal cancer and died at home under hospice care.
Rhode Island would join Oregon, along with Washington and Vermont, to become the fourth state to enact such legislation. Court action in Montana and New Mexico also made the practice legal in those states as well.
The Senate bill is co-sponsored by Senators Christopher Scott Ottiano (R-Dist. 11, Bristol,Portsmouth), Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Providence), Erin P. Lynch (D-Dist. 31,Warwick, Cranston) and Paul V. Jabour (D-Dist. 5, Providence). It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The House bill is cosponsored by Representatives Teresa Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, Narragansett, South Kingstown), Aaron Regunberg (D-Dist. 4, Providence), Christopher R Blazejewski (D-Dist. 2, Providence), and David Bennett (D-Dist. 20, Warwick, Cranston).