The plight of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard last year made “Death With Dignity” a topic of national conversation and helped lead lawmakers in more than a dozen states and the District to introduce bills that would allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults to take their own lives.
But while the District has been at the vanguard when it comes to other controversial issues of social liberty — including same sex marriage and marijuana liberalization — it doesn’t appear that D.C.’s proposed Death With Dignity Act is on the fast track.
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced the bill last month, modeling it on the “aid-in-dying” law already on the books in Oregon — the state where Maynard, diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, moved before she ended her life on Nov. 1.
But the bill’s future lies mainly in the hands of another lawmaker, Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), to whose Health and Human Services Committee the legislation was referred. And Alexander said Monday she plans to take an exceedingly careful approach to the bill that will involve an examination by two other committees and a public hearing that likely won’t take place for several months.
“Mary opened up a can of worms on this one,” Alexander said. There is “just too much up in the air” to move swiftly on the bill, she said.
Among her concerns are the legal implications for patients and their doctors, ensuring that a patient is in fact terminal, and whether an assisted suicide could, for instance, affect life insurance payouts.
“A person does have their individual rights, but at this point, there’s a lot we can do before it needs to be legislated,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who need to come to the table before we do this, especially the medical community and the insurance community.”
Alexander acknowledged she was skeptical of the concept, citing her personal experience with her father’s death from colon cancer in 2004. “He died a very dignified death in hospice care,” she said, explaining she was not sure what additional dignity a premature death might provide.
While the Catholic hierarchy has spoken out against Oregon-style aid-in-dying laws, Alexander said her own faith would not come to bear on her handling on the bill, noting that she’s broken with the church on an even more heated political issue: “I’m a Catholic, I go to church, and I also firmly believe in the right of a woman to choose,” she said.
Alexander said she did not anticipate holding a hearing on Cheh’s bill, which is thus far without co-sponsors, until after the council finishes its handling of the 2016 budget in early summer. And she said she also wants to hear from the committees overseeing legal affairs and insurance matters before moving forward.
The council may be treading carefully, but there are inklings that considerable political oomph could develop behind the Death With Dignity Act. The issue appeared for the first time this year on the D.C. issue agenda developed by the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance — noteworthy because there have been very few, if any, GLAA priorities that have not won a warm welcome in the John A. Wilson Building over the past three decades.
“The gay community’s painful experience with AIDS gives us sensitivity to end-of-life issues,” the group writes in its brief. “Activist David Mixner, for example, has movingly recounted helping several friends in the 1980s in the final stages of AIDS who asked his help to die with dignity. Contrary to opponents such as Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, this carefully crafted measure is not based on a ‘eugenic philosophy’ but on compassion and respect.”
Rick Rosendall, principal author of the agenda and a veteran D.C. activist, said the inclusion of Cheh’s bill was a nod to the days of the 1980s AIDS crisis, but also a recognition that — in D.C., anyway — progress on marriage, adoption and other issues have greatly shortened the gay political agenda.
“We’re stepping back and sort of taking a broader perspective on our community’s issues,” he said. “After all, the LGBT community crosses every other demographic group.”