Lawmakers, disability rights activists and doctors held an emotionally charged press conference Wednesday to announce the introduction of a House resolution opposing physician-assisted suicide.
The bipartisan resolution was introduced less than two weeks after House Republicans passed a spending bill that would repeal the D.C. Death With Dignity Act, which went into effect in February and made the District the seventh jurisdiction to allow physician-assisted suicide.
But discontent over Congress’ failed efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare spilled over into the aid-in-dying debate when a young man in the audience shouted down Rep. Brad R. Wenstrup, Ohio Republican and the resolution’s chief sponsor.
“My feeling is when the government supports, encourages or facilitates suicide, whether assisted by physicians or otherwise, we devalue our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings,” Mr. Wenstrup said during the press conference at the Longworth House Office Building. “I don’t believe that’s who we should be.”
Dozens of disability rights activists in wheelchairs, who wore brightly colored T-shirts and circled the podium, represented about half of the audience.
Many were affiliated with the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, which opposes physician-assisted suicide. They shared personal stories about their struggles to be treated like human beings, including from insurance companies that refuse to cover their treatments and people who say they would rather die than be disabled.
Anita Cameron, minority outreach director for Not Dead Yet, said she has been protesting efforts to repeal Obamacare over the past few days. She said physician-assisted suicide laws only exacerbate the problems with the health care system.
“That kind of ties in with assisted suicide because if you’re taking away health care from people, it’s just that much easier, if assisted suicide also passed, it’s that much easier to recommend prescribed suicide pills for people,” Ms. Cameron said. “And that’s something we don’t want.”
J.J. Hanson, president of the Patients Right Action Fund, was also in attendance. After a terminal brain cancer diagnosis, the Marine combat veteran was told he had just a few months to live. That was more than three years ago.
He was unable to read his prepared remarks, he said, because of a debilitating seizure three weeks ago. His wife, Kristen, read his speech.
If assisted suicide had been available at the time of his diagnosis, Mr. Hanson said, he would have been tempted to end his life, especially during a bout of depression.
“As I wondered, ‘Am I too much of a burden to my family?’ When I asked, ‘Is ending my life easier than this?’ I thought about it, and I considered it,” said Mrs. Hanson, reading for her husband. “Thankfully, I did not end my life, and that is why I am here today.”
The District joined California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington to allow physician-assisted suicide when Mayor Muriel Bowser signed the Death With Dignity Act into law in December.
The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment before press time but has said it opposes all congressional interference in the District’s local laws. Congress is constitutionally authorized to oversee the District’s laws and dealings.
The demonstration became heated when a young man protesting the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare interrupted Mr. Wenstrup and proceeded to speak uninterrupted for several minutes.
“You voted against Obamacare, you voted to repeal it. You can’t stand up there and talk about patients and say you’re representing patients and their lives and the decisions they make when you have decided many times and voted many times to kill thousands of people more, millions of people more, than assisted suicide ever will,” the protester said.
He was placated into silence after Mr. Wenstrup promised to continue the conversation back at his congressional office.
In another outburst, Mary Klein, a D.C. resident with terminal ovarian cancer who campaigned for the District’s aid-in-dying legislation, accused those who opposed the law of trying to impose their beliefs on her.
“My question is, why are you spreading misinformation about this law?” she asked. “Why do you think that you can speak for me and the majority of D.C. residents who support medical aid-in-dying? Why do you think that you should impose your will and your beliefs on me?”
Her questions provoked outrage from the disabled population in attendance.
Kimberly Hale, a woman from El Paso, Texas, who was born with cerebral palsy and suffered a debilitating spinal cord injury when she was 8, said physician-assisted suicide laws remove choices from society’s most vulnerable.
“But when you take away choice from people that are helpless and defenseless and you enact policies to make it legal, then you basically sign everybody here’s death certificate,” Ms. Hale said. “That’s what you don’t see. You might want to die, and we understand that, and we want you to go peacefully, and I’m sorry that you’re going through what you’re going through. But all of us have suffered greatly in this room. Greatly. All of us have.”
Jessica Williams from Rochester, New York, said physician-assisted suicide will disproportionately affect people with disabilities who already face challenges to receive medical care.
“People do tell us all the time that we should be dead,” said Ms. Williams, who suffers from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. “You know what else people tell us? ‘If I were in your situation, I would want to die.’ And if that becomes legal, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. And instead of learning how to live with disability and learning how to actually have a life, have jobs, have families, instead they’re going to want to take the easy way out and kill themselves with assisted suicide, and that’s what we’re trying to prevent here.”
The proposed resolution would express the view of Congress that physician-assisted suicide “puts everyone, including those most vulnerable, at risk of deadly harm and undermines the integrity of the health care system.”
Mr. Wenstrup’s resolution has five Republican and five Democratic sponsors: Reps. Ralph Lee Abraham, Louisiana Republican; Luis J. Correa, California Democrat; Andy Harris, Maryland Republican; Darin LaHood, Illinois Republican; James R. Langevin, Rhode Island Democrat; Daniel Lipinski, Illinois Democrat; Keith J. Rothfus, Pennsylvania Republican; Thomas R. Suozzi, New York Democrat; and Juan Vargas, California Democrat.