D.C. physician-assisted death bill moves ahead
Medicine | The law would allow doctors to help terminally ill patients commit suicide
by Kiley Crossland
Posted 10/06/16, 12:01 pm
A District of Columbia city council committee voted Wednesday to advance a physician-assisted suicide bill. The 3-2 vote by the Committee on Health and Human Services sends the bill to the entire city council for a tentative Oct. 18 hearing.
While supporters celebrated the narrow victory, critics of the legislation called on the council to vote down the measure, saying the legislation harms doctors, patients, caretakers, and communities, and is ripe for abuse.
The law, called the “Death with Dignity Act,” is modeled after Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law, enacted in 1997. If passed, the nation’s capital would join Oregon and four other states—Washington, Montana, Vermont, and California—with legal physician-assisted suicide.
D.C. councilwoman Mary Cheh introduced the measure in January. The law allows a mentally capable adult diagnosed with a terminal illness and given less than six months to live to request and receive a physician-prescribed drug to end his or her life. The patient must make two oral requests more than 15 days apart and also send a written request signed by two witnesses attesting to the patient’s voluntary action and mental stability. The drug is dispensed from a pharmacy and self-administered.
Committee chairwoman Yvette M. Alexander opposed the bill but still allowed it to progress to a vote. “If you want to end your life, that’s fine, but don’t make it incumbent on doctors to assist you with ending your life,” Alexander told The Washington Post.
Cheh, also a member of the committee, countered that no one would be forced to be involved. “Nobody is obliged to participate. Not hospitals, not pharmacies, not doctors, and certainly not people themselves,” said Cheh, according to the Post. “There are safeguards to make sure this is not a rash decision or a product of depression.”
But critics of the law contend despite purported safeguards, the law endangers the weak and vulnerable and corrupts the practice of medicine.
“Any bill seeking to legalize physician-assisted suicide instantly creates a subgroup of people as legally eligible to be killed,” said Ryan Anderson, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation. “This violates our nation’s commitment that every person has dignity and equality before the law.”
Anderson noted the proposed D.C. law allows one of the witnesses to the written request to be a family member with an interest in the person’s death. He also pointed out doctors have said deciding whether a person is “terminally ill” and how long they have to live is difficult. Patients can easily shop around until they find a physician willing to label their condition in a way that makes them eligible for physician-assisted suicide. Finally, the law has no safeguards against coercion or to ensure competence at the time the deadly drug is taken.
“Instead of helping people to kill themselves, we should offer them appropriate medical care and human presence. We should respond to suffering with true compassion and solidarity,” Anderson said.
Others argue financial burdens and medical bills could sway a patient’s decision.
“Financial pressures will certainly influence some doctors, families, and third-party payers,” wrote Allen Roberts and Scott Redd, professor of clinical medicine at Georgetown University and president of Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., respectively, in a Post editorial. “As a result, patients, especially the elderly and disabled, could feel not a right to die so much as a ‘duty to die.’”
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has not said whether she would sign the legislation if it passes the Council. Congress could also use its authority to strike down the law.
More than 20 states are currently considering physician-assisted suicide laws.
Kiley is a former WORLD correspondent.