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South Dakota backers push physician-assisted dying measure

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Activists pushing for South Dakota to join several states with physician-assisted dying laws are gathering signatures to put an initiative before voters in 2018 that would allow terminally ill people to receive prescriptions for drugs to end their own lives.

Backers of the plan would have to submit nearly 14,000 valid signatures to the secretary of state by November 2017 to get on the ballot in 2018. At least five states and the District of Columbia have “Death with Dignity” statutes, while a 2009 Montana Supreme Court ruling found that nothing in state law expressly prohibits physician-assisted dying.

It should be an option for South Dakota residents, initiative sponsor Angela Albonico said. She said terminally ill people should have the right to make their own highly personal choices about death.

“These people are already at the end of their life, and who are we to tell them that they can’t take a prescription, fall asleep and end their suffering?” said Albonico, who lives in Spearfish. “I don’t think that we have the right to do that.”

Under the plan, state-licensed physicians would be able to prescribe life-ending drugs to South Dakota patients with diseases expected to kill them within six months.

A state resident who wants to die would have to make an oral request and a written request, and reiterate the oral request at least 15 days after the initial one was made. The written request would have to be witnessed by two people. An attending physician would have to determine a patient is mentally competent and is making a voluntary and informed decision before prescribing the drugs, among other provisions in the proposal.

Kerie Jones wishes that her 82-year-old grandmother was given the option to end her life as she succumbed to pancreatic cancer last year — in pain, unable to move or eat. Near the end, Jones said the suffering woman asked why there wasn’t medication she could take to let her die.

Jones has been gathering signatures for the initiative in hopes others could be spared the same anguish.

“That’s exactly how I feel,” said Jones, a 35-year-old Tea resident. “I wish we could have given her this opportunity so she wouldn’t have suffered so much, and what I’m hoping is that other people, if they choose, they won’t have to.”

The petitions Jones and other volunteers are filling will help toward Albonico’s goal of about 25,000 signatures when the drive is done. Death With Dignity South Dakota has volunteers in larger cities such as Rapid City and Sioux Falls but also has plans to send people to smaller rural communities, she said.

Critics of the proposed ballot measure were to gather Friday evening in Sioux Falls for an early stage organizational meeting, said former Republican state Rep. Fred Deutsch, who plans to head the opposition group.

Deutsch said that doctors are often wrong predicting end of life and criticized the proposal for not requiring next of kin to be notified and lacking oversight after the medication is prescribed. He said that there are “other ways to address end-of-life concerns besides suicide.”

But Deutsch said he expects the measure to qualify for the ballot, so opponents are starting to prepare.

“The ball is in their court,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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