Right-to-die advocates amassed Thursday on the steps of the District’s City Hall to call for the speedy passage of a bill that would allow doctors to provide life-ending medication to those suffering from a terminal illness.
The legislation, deemed the Death with Dignity Act, would give doctors the ability to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live.
The patient must get the opinion of two separate doctors, as well as be deemed mentally competent to make the decision. Anyone who tries to influence the patient into taking part in doctor-assisted suicide can be prosecuted under the legislation.
The measure would not require a doctor’s supervision when the medication is administered, but would require patients to take the medication on their own, with no help from another person. The bill will be marked up by the council’s Health and Human Services Committee on Oct. 5 before it’s presented to the full council. Mayor Muriel Bowser has not signaled whether she would sign the legislation if it made it to her desk, and the U.S. Congress also would have a chance to weigh in on the legislation if it clears the mayor’s office.
“This bill is about respecting a person’s end-of-life decision,” said Council member Mary Cheh, who introduced the legislation. “It’s the most personal and intimate choice someone can make.”
Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, New Mexico and most recently California all employ similar right-to-die laws. And last year, 23 other states proposed similar legislation.
Proponents of the measure have said it gives a person the right to end suffering quickly when death is imminent and unavoidable.
Dan Diaz, the husband of Brittany Maynard, who moved to Oregon to end her life after fighting a terminal brain tumor, said Thursday that the legislation is about ensuring people don’t have to spend their last days suffering. He also dismissed critics who say that the measure effectively legalizes suicide.
“Brittany was determined to live,” Mr. Diaz said. “When you have cancer, you fight.”
Mr. Diaz said knowing that the drugs were available to end her life if she chose actually gave her more of a will to fight the cancer, because she knew there would be no pain if she ended up losing the battle.
“My wife wanted to live,” he said, “and at the end, she wanted to take back some control from her ailment.”
Even though many religious organizations have strongly resisted assisted suicide laws in other states, several clergy members were on hand Thursday to lend their support to the proposed D.C. measure.
Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler, senior minister at the Plymouth Congressional United Church of Christ in Northeast, said that churches need to stop preaching in large, general abstractions and instead think about what’s actually happening at bedsides.
“Mercy takes place at an individual level,” Rev. Hagler said. “Mercy happens in someone’s heart. We’re offering a mechanism of mercy when we are called on to be merciful.”
Rev. Hagler said in an interview that the issue is certainly divisive among churches in the District.
“Theologically, [the legislation] makes sense,” he said. “But you might have some purists say we’re playing God.”
Bishop Gene Robinson, who previously serviced as an Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire and is widely recognized as the faith’s first openly gay bishop, echoed Rev. Hagler, saying there is a disconnect between larger church teachings and what he has actually seen at the bedside of dying parishioners.
“We have a romantic notion of dying,” Bishop Robinson, who now lives in the District, said. “In reality, dying involves terrible pain. I believe in a God who wants the best for me. I don’t worship a God who would want that pain and suffering or a God who would turn his back on someone requesting life-ending drugs.”
Still, the issue is as divisive in the city as it has been in other jurisdictions that have taken up the debate.
Diane Coleman, president of the disability advocacy group Not Dead Yet, told The Washington Times this week that 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.”
J.J. Hanson, who heads up the group No D.C. Suicide, is a survivor of Grade-4 glioblastoma brain cancer and a firm opponent of right-to-die measures.
Mr. Hanson related how doctors told him he was told he had four months to live. That was two-and-a-half years ago, and he says the cancer is in remission. He said during his treatment he experienced incredible depression and thought about ending his life.
“Were assisted suicide on the books in our broken health care system, the unlucky may be pressured or forced to choose death over care,” Mr. Hanson wrote on the Patients Rights Action Fund website, another group that opposes right-to-die legislation. “Even the best doctors can be wrong, and not everyone has access to a second opinion like I did. I’m no better than the next cancer fighter, I’m just lucky.”