Coalitions for and against assisted suicide will clash in the nation’s capital this week, as the D.C. Council considers legislation to allow physicians to help terminally ill patients end their lives.
The Death with Dignity Act, introduced by Council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, would establish procedures by which doctors would be authorized to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to patients given a prognosis of six months or less to live.
In advance of an Oct. 5 committee vote, a coalition opposed to the legislation is holding a lobbying day Wednesday, arguing that assisted suicide laws devalue human life and pose a significant threat to vulnerable populations, including the elderly and disabled.
Proponents of the legislation, who see assisted suicide as a humane way to alleviate the suffering of the dying, will hold a press conference Thursday and then meet with council members to urge them to pass the bill.
Modeled on assisted suicide legislation passed in Oregon nearly two decades ago, the District’s Death with Dignity Act would require terminally ill patients to demonstrate their mental competency and the voluntary nature of their request to a doctor on two separate occasions before they could receive life-ending drugs. Doctors would not be required to be present during the administration of the lethal dose, which is generally ingested orally.
If the legislation is adopted, the District would join five states that allow medical aid in dying. California, Vermont and Washington also have enacted right-to-die laws legislatively, while courts in Montana have ruled the practice is legal there.
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More than 20 states also are considering right-to-die laws.
Looming over the debate in the District is the specter of Brittany Maynard, who became the right-to-die movement’s biggest advocate when she moved from California to Oregon — where she would ultimately take her life — after being diagnosed with Grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme, a terminal brain cancer, in 2014.
Daniel Diaz, Maynard’s widower, will attend Thursday’s press conference to support the bill’s passage, calling his advocacy for right-to-die legislation a “promise that I made to my wife.”
“Brittany spoke up because she thought it was a huge injustice that we had to leave our home, after being told that she only had six months to live, and get across some imaginary line on Highway 5 driving up from Northern California to Oregon,” Mr. Diaz said. “So the promise that I made to Brittany is that I would continue to advocate for and work on moving legislation forward so that nobody else in her predicament would ever have to leave their home like we did.”
California enacted a right-to-die law less than one year after Maynard’s death, which Mr. Diaz said went a “long way” toward helping to fulfill his vow.
Opposition is being spearheaded by J.J. Hanson, president of the Patients’ Rights Protection Fund, who pointed to his experience in overcoming the same brain cancer that afflicted Maynard.
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“I had the exact same type of cancer and was diagnosed at around the exact same time, and I was given a similar prognosis,” Mr. Hanson said. “I was told that I had four months left to live and that I should go home and enjoy the time that I had left. But two years and seven months later, I’m doing fine. I’m as close to being in remission as you can be with GBM.”
During the course of his treatment, Mr. Hanson said he underwent periods of depression and on at least one occasion thought about ending his life.
“I remember lying in my bed and asking myself, ‘Is this worth it? Should I just give up? Would it be easier on everyone else if I just gave up?’” Mr. Hanson said. “And it would have been the worst thing I ever could have done if I had chosen to stop fighting and end my life.”
He said he “wasn’t in the right state of mind” to make that decision, but “according to this legislation, I could have had those pills right next to me on my nightstand when I was going through that time of depression.”
But Mr. Diaz said “control over the dying process” only strengthened Maynard’s resolve to overcome her brain cancer.
“It gave her more confidence to really fight that tumor, because she no longer had to be so afraid of how her final few days might play out,” he said. “She had taken that control back from the tumor.”
Representatives from the disabled community will be present at both press conferences this week.
Charmaine Manansala is the political director of Compassion & Choices, which partnered with Maynard to raise awareness about right-to-die legislation during the 29-year-old’s final months. Ms. Manansala said the D.C. bill includes rigorous safeguards to ensure life-ending prescriptions are only obtained by terminally ill patients.
Ms. Manansala, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 15 years ago, said the notion that the law could put pressure on disabled or elderly people to end their lives is a “separate issue dealing with that individual case.”
“I have to say that opponents within the disability community are a minority, and that individuals with disabilities also want this option,” she said.
But Diane Coleman, president of the disability advocacy group Not Dead Yet, said assisted suicide laws risk coercing patients to end their lives if they feel like a financial or emotional burden on their loved ones. She said the D.C. legislation does not properly safeguard against the potential for abuse behind closed doors.
“People with disabilities, as well as everyone, should be concerned about the risk of coercion and abuse under these laws,” Ms. Coleman said. “And that there is really no oversight from the state to address any of that.”
And Dr. Allen Roberts, a practitioner of intensive care medicine in Washington, D.C., said physician-assisted suicide runs contrary to the Hippocratic Oath, noting that “medicine historically has not been about being the agent of death.”
If the ethic governing medicine becomes “I can do with my body whatever I choose,” there is no way to limit the availability of assisted suicide to terminally ill patients, he said.
“Autonomy has to be held in balance with the beneficence of physicians, of the community and of the practice of medicine,” Dr. Roberts said. “The bottom line is the bill is dangerous: dangerous for medicine, dangerous for society and dangerous for patients who are vulnerable.”
Mayor Muriel Bowser has not indicated whether she would sign the legislation, should it reach her desk. A Republican-controlled Congress also would have a chance to weigh in on the legislation if it clears the mayor’s office.
Donna Smith, the D.C. and Maryland legislative director for Compassion & Choices, said the bill has a “great chance of getting through the council.”
“We appreciate people’s right to choose,” she said. “If this is not for you, we support that. But your personal decisions should not deter or cancel anybody else’s option for this.”