Congress misses chance to stop assisted suicide in D.C.

Euthanasia | Republican leaders chose not to schedule a vote to block the Death With Dignity Act, which went into effect Saturday
by Evan Wilt
Posted 2/21/17, 06:11 pm

WASHINGTON—Republican congressional leaders punted an opportunity to block the legalization of physician-assisted suicide in the nation’s capital Friday. While lawmakers and pro-life groups voiced regret over a “missed opportunity,” no one could explain the resolution’s sudden death after surviving a committee review.

The Council of the District of Columbia approved legislation late last year allowing terminally ill residents to get a doctor’s help to end their own lives. Federal law grants Congress jurisdiction over the District of Columbia and allows 30 congressional workdays to review legislation passed by the D.C. council.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced a joint resolution disapproving D.C.’s Death With Dignity Act but leaders chose not to schedule a vote in time. The assisted-suicide law went into effect Saturday.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed the joint resolution out of committee with a 22-14 vote.

Oversight Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and House leaders had the opportunity to call for a full vote in the House but chose not to. Chaffetz’s office did not respond to a request for comment. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office redirected me to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., whose office also did not respond to questions about why the resolution never came up for a vote.

“This was an unfortunate missed opportunity to defend the sanctity of life at all stages,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who voted for the resolution in committee. “I’m disappointed that this didn’t come to the floor for a vote.”

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., sponsored the disapproving resolution in the Senate, where it would have needed a 51-vote majority to pass.

“Loosely written assisted-suicide laws are a recipe for abuse against the disabled, elderly, and the poor,” Lankford said in an emailed statement. “I’m disappointed that Congress did not act on a resolution of disapproval for D.C.’s assisted-suicide bill. There are significant consequences to this law that have far-reaching implications for how we care for vulnerable people.”

The Family Policy Alliance sent out an email to supporters last week urging them to ask their representatives to block D.C.’s assisted-suicide law. Autumn Leva, the group’s public policy director, told me not getting a full vote was disappointing.

“We have our nation’s capital basically, by their inaction, giving their approval to our healthcare professionals prematurely ending people’s lives,” Leva said.

The Death With Dignity Act allows terminally ill adults given six months or less to live the ability to obtain lethal drugs from a doctor. Six states—California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Montana, and Washington—have laws on the books permitting physician-assisted suicide, and others are considering similar legislation.

Margaret Dore is a Seattle-based attorney who runs Choice Is an Illusion, a nonprofit opposing assisted-suicide and euthanasia laws. She told me some members of Congress hesitated to take action because it required federal lawmakers to block a local decision. Even so, Dore called the committee vote a positive takeaway.

“They got a vote; they got a victory; they got it organized; they have people working on it,” Dore said. “These are all good signs.”

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., advocated against Congress overruling the local law. In a statement on Friday, she offered her work as a reason why Congress didn’t make more progress on the disapproval resolution.

“We kept constant pressure on House Republicans and prevented a House floor vote after the markup by calling out the 24 House Republicans, including two members of House leadership, who are from the six states where medical aid in dying is legal,” Norton said.

Physician-assisted suicide may now be legal in the nation’s capital, but it will take several months before doctors can prescribe lethal drugs. Local officials need to develop the administrative forms and oversight outlined in the law, which could take until October.

Congress’ latest spending bill only funds the government until the end of April, creating another opportunity to block the law before patients can legally end their own lives. Lawmakers have the option of attaching a repeal provision to must-pass spending legislation. 

Both Chaffetz and Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., previously said they are exploring how to include a repeal into the appropriation process.

But the easier route would have been to block the legislation through the joint resolution that only needed 51 Senate votes instead of the regular 60 to end a filibuster.

“This was definitely a missed opportunity and we’re disappointed Congress didn’t take advantage of it,” said Andrew Guernsey, a legislative assistant for the Family Research Council. “But we’ll continue to support efforts moving forward that Congress doesn’t fail in its duty to stop this harmful law.”

Evan Wilt

Evan is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Washington, D.C.

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