State Rep. Robyn Gabel: “When I stand up in Springfield to urge the passage of a ‘Medical-Aid-in-Dying’ law, my voice will be stronger if I can point out that my hometown supports me.”

Despite reservations, members of a City Committee have forwarded to the City Council a group’s request Feb. 2 for a resolution seeking City support for State legislation that would allow terminally ill individuals to seek medical help in dying.

At their Feb. 2 meeting, aldermen on the Council’s Human Services Committee voted to send the issue to the full City Council, where it could be up for discussion as soon as the Council’s Feb. 10 meeting.

Clad in yellow T-shirts bearing their “Compassion & Choice” message,  about a dozen community members joined State Representative Robyn Gabel (D-18th) at the Human Services Committee meeting, urging committee members to adopt the resolution of support for a “Medical-Aid-in-Dying” law.

The legislation would allow an adult with six months or less to live and deemed mentally capable to request a prescription for medication from his or her physician to aid in dying. Currently, the physician-assisted practice is authorized in nine states, supporters noted.

The proposal is built on the premise that “terminally ill patients may undergo pain, suffering, and an irreversible reduction in their quality of life in their final days, and only the patient can determine whether his or her suffering is unbearable,” the resolution language said.

Addressing the Human Services Committee, Rep. Gabel stressed the message that Evanston support would send.

“When I stand up in Springfield to urge the passage of a “medical aid in dying” law, my voice will be far stronger if I can point out that my hometown supports me, as demonstrated by its passage of a local resolution,” she said.

Similar resolutions, she said, “were key to the passage of a similar law in California and to the progress of the legislation in other states where bills are pending,” she said.

“Illinois deserves to have Medical-Aid-in-Dying available among other lawful end- of-life options,” she said. “As you know, if we pass it this year, there can be other municipalities that will look to us and will pass the same types of resolutions.”

Oliver Ruff, a longtime resident of Evanston and retired administrator and teacher, also spoke in support.

“I have been reaching out to the underserved community, and it is clear to me that they are not being adequately informed about the range of end-of-life options that are available,” he told Committee members, “and not always aware of how to ensure that their final wishes will be honored.”

“Medical-Aid-in-Dying,” he maintained, provides options for those with a terminal illness whose “suffering is unbearable and where palliative care is not always enough.”

John Lionberger, a chaplain for the Three Crowns Retirement Community in Evanston, was among other speakers who supported passage.

At Three Crowns, “I do a lot of one-on-one counseling, as you could imagine, both with families and the residents,” he told aldermen, “and I never bring this up [the Medical-Aid-in-Dying], because it’s not an option that the State can offer them.

“But if they [those groups] bring it up,” he said, “we talk about it and, almost universally, they [residents]would like this option, to have the autonomy of deciding their own lives.”

“Every religion I know of places compassion at the top of how people are meant to treat each other,” he said. “I see medical aid and dying as a logical and natural and necessary addition to the resources that are already in place to help people do things like post DNR [Do Not Resuscitate requests] and the Five Wishes [a document directing care guidance]. The intention of all of these directives is to allow the person as much autonomy as possible. The key concept to remember is that if it [Medical-Aid-in-Dying] is passed, it is an option. It is not a mandate.”

But several speakers at the meeting from the disabilities community warned about the practice’s dangers.

Larry Biondi, a resident of the Fifth Ward, referred to a study by the National Council on Disability, “finding the law’s safeguards are ineffective and oversight of abuses and mistakes absent.”

He told aldermen that over the past two decades every major disability organization has taken a position against the practice, which he referred to as “assisted suicide.”

“When assisted suicide is legal it’s the cheapest treatment available – an attractive option in our profit-driven health care system,” he said in his statement.

Further, “terminal diagnoses and prognosis are too often wrong, leading people to lose good year of their lives,” he said.

“If one doctor says ‘no,’ he pointed out, people can “doctor-shop for another doctor who will say ‘yes,’” he maintained.

People with the disability of depression are “subject to harm” when “assisted suicide” is legal, he said.

Many medical organizations also oppose doctor-assisted “suicide laws,” he said, including the American Medical Association and American College of Physicians.

Following up, Anne Gunter, speaking from her wheelchair, pointed to her own story in support of the practice’s dangers.

“I was in hospice for about three months this past year, and I had to fight my way out of hospice to get back into the real world “ she said. “So I want people to know medical options in and of themselves aren’t a way to achieve what is hoped by this physician-assisted suicide [currently] has throughout the country.

“Assisted suicide only works if you actually want to die and can’t do it yourself,” she said. “But if you can’t do it yourself, how are you sure that you’re communicating what you want to someone else?”

Aldermen showed a similar division of opinions in their discussion, which followed public comment.

Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, chairing the meeting, noted that the proposal was up for reconsideration after failing to win Committee backing previously.

From his own experience with his father, he said, while not in favor of the proposal, “I am in support of seniors having dignity in whatever route they choose.

“I think it’s important that it go to the Council,” he said, “but based on my spiritual beliefs and cultural beliefs, I’m not in favor of this.”

Ald. Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, noted she was chair of Human Services when aldermen took no action on the issue last year.

“I certainly understand both positions that we’ve heard tonight,” she said of the discussion. “But I don’t think my opinion has changed really. This is not something that our City Council has any jurisdiction over. Obviously she [Rep. Gabel] has strong support to take to the State, and that’s where this belongs, at the State, not at the City.

“We can’t make a decision to allow it within the borders of Evanston, the decision you’re seeking,” she told the resolution backers. “It just doesn’t exist for us.”

Ald. Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, spoke of the lack of issues around the practice in Oregon since it was introduced there 20 years ago, including “absolutely no evidence, not a single instance, where there was any hint of coercion or abuse in the practice.

“The momentum seems to be recognition that the process has been working well in Oregon, [and] other states are saying ‘Well, you know we’re hearing from residents  in our state who would like really like to have this option available as well. And so I see Illinois as joining this growing number of states that are ready to make this option available.”

Ald. Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, acknowledged the request for the resolution from Rep. Gabel and the residents.

“But I just don’t think it’s really within our capacity, and I’m just not comfortable giving an opinion on something that is just so far out of my scope of expertise “ she said.

Medical and people’s personal choices “are not something that I personally feel comfortable making a decision,” she said, joining others supporting that the issue go to the Council.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.