The Utah House passed a bill Tuesday that would criminalize helping someone commit suicide — despite some concern from lawmakers that the bill could unintentionally target physicians or family members of terminally ill patients.
Rep. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, has sponsored House Bill 86, which would amend Utah’s manslaughter statute to include assisted suicide. This means a person would be guilty of a second-degree felony — which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison — if prosecutors can prove he or she provided “the physical means” for someone to commit suicide.
McKell brought the bill in response to a Utah County case where an 18-year-old man is charged with murder, accused of encouraging a friend to kill herself, buying her the materials to do so and then filming the 16-year-old girl’s suicide on a cell phone.
Utah currently doesn’t have any clearly defined assisted suicide laws, McKell said, and questions have been raised about whether helping someone commit suicide amounts to murder.
But lawmakers debated Tuesday whether McKell’s bill would unintentionally target family members who are trying to help a loved one who is suffering or terminally ill.
And some expressed concern that the bill could interfere with a physician’s ability to give medication in the last moments of a patient’s life. While the goal of medication is to make a patient comfortable and ease suffering, said Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, it’s also likely the drugs will shorten that person’s life.
“I don’t want to be accused, as a physician, of purposely trying to end their life,” Redd said Tuesday.
McKell tried to remedy these concerns by adding language to the bill that would exempt physicians from the manslaughter amendment — even if providing medication hastens the end of a patient’s life — unless it could be shown a doctor provided the medication knowing that a patient would use it commit suicide.
That substituted version of HB86 was passed by the House on a 51-18 vote Tuesday, despite some interference from a Democratic lawmaker who has been pushing a bill allowing life-ending medication for terminal patients for several years.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, proposed her own amendment which would have protected physicians from prosecution. Unlike McKell’s substitution, it did not include language that would allow a physician to be charged with manslaughter if he or she knowingly providing the medication to aid in a suicide. She expressed concern that McKell’s bill could have a “chilling effect” on doctors.
“Medical aid and dying is not suicide,” Chavez-Houck said. “Honoring a terminally ill patient’s request to have medication at hand to use at their discretion, if they so choose, is not suicide.”
McKell opposed Chavez-Houck’s amendment, saying it changed the intent of his bill to instead address “the concept of death with dignity.” Her proposed substitution failed Tuesday.
Chavez-Houck is sponsoring her own bill, HB210, which would allow terminally ill patients to obtain a fatal prescription. This session will be the third time legislators will consider her End of Life Options Act, after opting instead to recommend an interim study the past two years.
McKell’s bill will now be considered by the Senate.