BISMARCK — Does a dying patient have the right to choose their time?
"No one can speak to dying with dignity more credibly than someone who is dying," Mark Schneider told North Dakota lawmakers on Monday, Feb. 1.
He added, "I fill that bill. I am dying."
Schneider, who has urothelial cancer, is a former Fargo attorney and onetime Democratic-NPL chairman. He and his wife Rep. Mary Schneider, D-Fargo, are among a small group who voiced support Monday for a bill to legalize medically assisted suicide for terminally ill people, the first such legislation to be considered in North Dakota. The bill drew opposition from several religious and medical groups, but, for the Schneiders, the "right to die," as it is sometimes called, has broad national support and would offer an option that Mark may want to exercise soon.
"I think most people feel that capable decision-makers ought to be able to choose their health care for the end of their lives," Mary said after Mark testified on behalf of the bill. "As much as it breaks my heart, he has a right to choose when enough is enough."
If North Dakota opts to legalize assisted suicide, it will join eight states and the District of Columbia in allowing the practice. The option is also legal north of the border in Canada, which has recently considered expanding assisted suicide beyond terminally ill patients, and it was passionately debated in the Minnesota statehouse two years ago.
Backers of the practice have said that it allows an avenue for declining patients to "die with dignity" — to go out on their own terms, while they can still take in and understand the world they're leaving behind. But opponents on Monday argued that the legalization of the practice would put North Dakota on a "slippery slope," undermining the sanctity of human life.
House Bill 1415, which was introduced by Rep. Pamela Anderson, D-Fargo, and which is sponsored by six Democrats and one Republican, would allow for terminally ill patients who have received a prognosis from two doctors that they have six months or fewer left to live to request life-ending pills.
In the spring of last year, Mark Schneider said, a Mayo Clinic doctor told him that he likely had just one year to live. His cancer had spread through other parts of his body. Meanwhile, chemotherapy and radiation treatment have come with pernicious and sometimes painful side effects. And though Schneider said his timeline may have been extended somewhat thanks to a new drug and that his will to live remains strong, he said he wants the option to end his own life if he sharply declines.
"The end game, which is inevitable, presents me and those like me with the prospects of unbearable pain and deterioration and the certain loss of physical and mental function that will render me a shadow of my former self," he said. "As simply as I can put it, why should decisions about my condition, health care choices and life be dictated by others not living my life?"
Opponents, however, said the issue goes beyond personal choice, arguing that phrases like "dying with dignity" and "right to die" paper over a harsher reality.
"Euphemisms and legalese cannot disguise what the bill does," said Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, who said the bill would legally facilitate suicide. "Our lives are no less worthy because I may die six months from now, seven months from now or 70 years from now," Dodson said.
Dodson argued that legalizing this end-of-life option would disincentivize the provision of health care resources for people nearing the end of their lives, embracing instead "a culture of death," and others warned that it could set back the state's suicide prevention efforts.
"Suicide is something we deal with all the time, and yet, those people do it anyway. And so, by codifying it, we're actually changing the whole conversation on suicide," said Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, who opposed the bill on ethical and religious grounds and asked that lawmakers take into account the spiritual import of dying people, not just their bodily health.
And though assisted suicide allows for the prescription of life-ending pills, for patients to administer on their own, some medical groups have argued that the practice would put doctors into a compromising position. The North Dakota Medical Association, which represents many physicians in the state, testified against the bill on Monday, drawing on its 2017 resolution addressing the issue, which called the practice of assisted suicide "fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as a healer."
But for the Schneiders, the bill is a matter of personal choice, one that they believe they could have to make soon.
"I was having a hard time to keep from crying in there," said Mary after her husband's testimony. "But he's a very competent, very brilliant adult, and I have to trust him and love him no matter what decision he makes."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.