Interim study on assisted suicide bill yields committee recommendation

The New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 on September 1 to recommend that legislation addressing assisted suicide be considered in a future legislative session.

This is not the passage of any specific bill. It’s only a recommendation. This post is not a call to action, only a report. Here’s how we got here.

The tortured tale of HB 1659

Bear with me. It’s been a winding journey from February to September.

Last February, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on HB 1659, which despite the misleading title about “patient’s rights” was in fact an assisted suicide bill. From the official analysis of the bill: “This bill allows a mentally competent person who is 18 years of age or older and who has been diagnosed as having a terminal disease by the patient’s attending physician and a consulting physician to request a prescription for medication which will enable the patient to control the time, place, and manner of such patient’s death.”

A large, diverse crowd gathered on hearing day to say “no way.” The coalition was a thing of beauty: people with disabilities and their advocates, conventional pro-life groups, faith leaders, and more. The hearing had to be moved to Representatives Hall to accommodate everyone. (See here and here.)

The sponsor of HB 1659, Rep. Catt Sandler, was the first to testify. What she had to say was unusual but not unheard of: she was dissatisfied by the language that had emerged from the Office of Legislative Services pursuant to her bill-drafting request. She informed the committee that she planned to introduce an amendment, which was not ready in time for the hearing.

The hearing went on, with the hundreds of people in attendance determined to make their views known on HB 1659 as it had been introduced (which was the only version available to the public).

A few weeks after the hearing, the committee voted 11-8 to send the bill to interim study. That’s a way of killing the bill without killing the idea. Rep. Paul Berch wrote the committee’s majority report, published in the House Calendar as a guide for House members who would later vote on the bill: “This legislation provides for legally assisted dying. The committee heard considerable testimony from the public. It is a complex subject and the sponsor has filed an extensive redraft which has not been subject to either public nor committee scrutiny. For that reason, the committee recommends Interim Study.” (House Calendar #10, page 64)

“Legally assisted dying” is a way of not-saying “assisted suicide.”

The committee minority, which preferred an inexpedient-to-legislate vote, had its own ideas. From the minority report written by Rep. Mark McLean: “…The minority of the committee felt that the bill’s protections against coercion were extremely inadequate and had deep concerns that the elderly and disabled might be taken advantage of out of a desire for expediency. This view was universally shared by every disabled group that testified, all of whom were unanimous in their opposition to the bill. Attempts to study the subject in the past have always been defeated due to the legitimate fear that once the journey to medical aid in dying is begun, it will be very difficult to reverse course. It is on these grounds that the minority of the committee opposed Interim Study and seek a motion of Inexpedient to Legislate.”

The House adopted the interim study recommendation on a voice vote in a COVID-rushed session on March 12. You can look on page 148 of the House Journal for that date in the hope of finding out how the debate went, but I’ll save you the trouble: debate was brief. There was a long agenda that day, and everyone knew that COVID was about to bring the legislature to a screeching halt.

Next stop for a bill in interim study is back to the originating committee, which holds one or more work sessions in the late summer following the House session. The committee then votes on whether or not to recommend that a future legislative session take up the same topic.

Which brings us to September 1.

What the interim study work session was about

The Judiciary Committee met on September 1 to have a work session on HB 1659, followed immediately by a vote.

Interim study cannot revive a bill. HB 1659 itself is a thing of the past. The committee members were voting only on whether future legislation should be pursued in another legislative session. From the discussion preceding the vote, it sounded like some legislators voted Yes out of a desire to study end-of-life issues other than assisted suicide.

Still, HB 1659 is what it is – or rather, was what it was.

Public reaction to HB 1659 was noticed

Several representatives at the work session recalled the large public turnout at the House hearing on HB 1659 in February.

The fact the the bill was opposed by a broad coalition of groups made an impression on legislators. Someone unlikely to be persuaded by a pro-life organization, for example, was more likely to listen to concerns expressed by advocates for Granite Staters with disabilities. Important lesson there: coalitions count.

Further, several committee members mentioned the volume and content of anti-HB1659 emails and other contacts they had received last spring. Another lesson: calls and emails count.

Language matters

Before voting on the recommendation regarding future legislation, Rep. Diane Langley expressed her concern that calling HB 1659 an assisted suicide bill was “inflammatory language. This is not assisted suicide.”

Anyone communicating with Rep. Langley on end-of-life issues needs to be respectful of her aversion to the words “assisted suicide.”

At the same time, I can’t escape the knowledge that ending one’s own life is, by definition, suicide. Giving a person who wants to die the means by which to die is “assistance.” I may be inflammatory, but I think a bill that enables suicide with assistance is an assisted suicide bill.

That’s what HB 1659 was and is, since at no point did the full legislature or a committee vote on any amendment.

Might a future end-of-life study bill explicitly rule out assisted suicide as a topic for consideration? Now there’s a thought. However, that specific option was not among the committee’s September 1 duties.

The September 1 roll call

The discussion that preceded the September 1 vote ranged over end-of-life issues beyond assisted suicide. At least one committee member clearly believed that her Yes vote was NOT necessarily indicative of a position on assisted suicide. Make of that what you will.

Rep. Anita Burroughs announced in advance her intention to vote Yes on the recommendation, but hastened to add “it doesn’t mean I’m in favor of assisted suicide. We need to hear more from families in this situation.”

Rep. Charlotte DiLorenzo, on the other hand, told her colleagues why she was going to vote No: her concern about disparities in health care for minorities and poor people.

Voting to recommend future legislative action: Reps. Debra Altschiller (D-Stratham), Paul Berch (D-Westmoreland), Anita Burroughs (D-Glen), Wendy Chase (D-Rollinsford), Sandra Keans (D-Rochester), Cam Kenney (D-Durham), Diane Langley (D-Manchester), Marjorie Smith (D-Durham), Deb Stevens (D-Nashua), David Woodbury (D-New Boston).

Voting against recommending future action: Reps. Joe Alexander (R-Goffstown), Charlotte DiLorenzo (D-Newmarket), Ned Gordon (R-Bristol), Timothy Horrigan (D-Durham), Jason Janvrin (R-Seabrook), Mark McLean (R-Manchester), Michael Sylvia (R-Belmont), Kurt Wuelper (R-Strafford).

Committee members absent: Reps. Barbara Griffin (R-Goffstown) and Gary Hopper (R-Weare).

Prospects for 2021

The first filing period for 2021 legislative service requests – the first step in drafting a bill – begins on September 10, for legislators who survive their primary elections on September 8. Another LSR filing period will follow the November 3 general election.

Within a few months, we’ll know if the ghost of HB 1659 has come back with a new number for 2021.

Consistent with current House operating procedure under COVID-19 precautions, the committee’s September 1 meeting was online via the Zoom platform, with the public able to listen or watch via phone or a Zoom link.

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