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To ease suffering for terminally ill patients, Rhode Island should legalize medically assisted death

The Lila Manfield Sapinsley Compassionate Care Act would allow a terminally ill patient to choose to end their life using medications prescribed by a physician. The writer urges the General Assembly leadership to give it a fair and open hearing, and put it to a vote.

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

In the opening of the popular TV show “Yellowstone,” the main character played by Kevin Costner shoots his beloved horse to put him out of his pain following an accident with an oversized piece of construction equipment. Visually, we are seeing the intersection of the old west and modern life.

Progress has improved many facets of life, our health and safety, our housing, our education, our ability to travel. And obviously in America, all these improvements have benefited some more than others. Read: People of color and the poor haven’t benefited equitably.

What scientific advancement and modernization have not improved is death.


It is said that only two things are certain: death and taxes, but in our modern, technologically advanced world, death has become less certain. We euthanize animals with regularity when they are in undeniable pain that won’t get better. Yet, we force terminally ill people to suffer for months and sometimes years without the same humane end.

In the last several years I, like many of my friends, neighbors and family, have watched terminally ill loved ones suffer to death. With absolutely no chance of ever getting out of bed, or living any kind of “life” due to terminal illness, we compel our loved ones to writhe in pain or gasp for breath as heavily medicated zombies, until their bodies finally give in.

We can and should fix this by passing House bill H5210, the Lila Manfield Sapinsley Compassionate Care Act. This legislation, introduced again this year by Representative Edith Ajello, would establish a process to provide a legal mechanism whereby a terminally ill patient may choose to end their life using medications prescribed by a physician. Many other countries do this, as do ten states.

Opponents claim that such a law is a “slippery slope” — a complete fallacy if one actually reads the legislation. “Slippery slope” arguments ignore the possibility of any middle ground. Passing legislation is a slow and careful process, with many opportunities for public engagement. Policymakers are specifically charged with understanding an issue, and public concern surrounding an issue, and finding and codifying middle ground and balance between extremes. Functional legislation contains bright lines to define behavior approved by society. Then society supports enforcement action around the bright line.


“Slippery slopes” happen when a law does not have these bright lines. For example, instead of allowing everyone to drive regardless of age, most states impose a minimum driving age, but no one suggests we should not allow anyone to drive because of a slippery slope. Medical aid in dying laws follow the same slow and careful legislative process as any other piece of legislation, including public engagement, and, as a result, contain bright-line distinctions and prevent the slippery slope.

In previous years, legislators have heard from patients with dreadful diseases — people with absolutely no chance at a cure — about how needless suffering is affecting them, and their families. It is horrific to watch someone you love die a slow, painful death.

I urge the General Assembly leadership to carefully examine this bill, give it a fair and open hearing, and put it to a vote. Let’s prevent families across Rhode Island from treating their loved ones worse than lame horses, and help the terminally ill with a compassionate end.

Kate Coyne-McCoy is a progressive Democratic political strategist. She lives in Scituate.