A D.C. Council panel on Wednesday advanced a bill allowing physicians to prescribe fatal medication to help terminally ill residents legally end their lives, setting the stage for a fight over the emotionally charged issue in the nation’s capital.
The legislation squeaked out of the Committee on Health and Human Services on a 3-to-2 vote after an intense lobbying effort from patients pleading for an option to avoid prolonged suffering and from religious leaders and medical professionals who object to the prospect of hastening death.
The proposal by Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) is modeled after Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act” enacted in 1997. Patients who are mentally fit and have fewer than six months to live are eligible after consulting two doctors over a period of two weeks.
California was the last jurisdiction to authorize the practice exactly one year ago, joining Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana.
“Even if this is something you would not choose personally, or something that your religious or moral beliefs mandate that you oppose, we should give dying individuals who do want this choice the ability to make it, to decide how they want to die as they stand on the threshold of death,” Cheh said before voting with members LaRuby May (D-Ward 8) and David Grosso (I-At Large) to advance the legislation.
Council members Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) objected to the legislation. Nadeau said she feared low-income people who have less access to health care would be pushed to end their lives early, while Alexander said voters should have a say on the matter through a ballot initiative, as in Oregon and Washington.
“Given the nature of this bill being a life-or-death issue, I believe this matter is best left to the decision of the residents,” Alexander said.
No public testimony was taken at Wednesday’s hearing, but opponents in red “No D.C. suicide” shirts and supporters in yellow with the national Compassion and Choices group packed the room.
Grosso cast the deciding vote to pass the legislation, calling it one of the toughest decisions he has made.
“As a matter of basic principle, I believe adults should be able to make their choices about their own lives and bodies,” said Grosso, who said he would push for aggressive oversight of the law to make sure low-income people and people with disabilities are not steered to early death.
An analysis by the District’s chief financial officer estimated fewer than 10 people a year would use the drugs permitted under the proposed law.
The legislation will be considered by the full council as early as Oct. 18.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on Wednesday announced support for the bill, boosting its chances.
“People in terminal stages of their lives are often living a miserable existence,” Mendelson said in a statement. “It can actually be an act of kindness to respect their wishes and enable them to pass peacefully. That’s what this legislation is about.”
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has not taken a position, although her appointed health director has testified against the bill.
The legislation also faces another hurdle with Congress, which could use its authority to strike down the law, if it passes.
National right-to-die advocates have spent the last year unsuccessfully pushing similar bills in dozens of states, including Maryland, where proponents did not have enough support from a key state Senate panel.
Donna Smith, a regional organizer for Compassion and Choices, said she was confident in the legislation’s prospects before the full D.C. Council.
“A lot of times, these bills take years to get out,” Smith said. “Now, D.C. residents are much closer to having an additional option at the end of life.”
Donna Bethell, a Northwest Washington resident who opposed the bill, said she did not think it protected patients enough and that she was philosophically opposed to the concept.
“Suicide is morally wrong. Assisting someone to commit suicide is morally wrong,” she said.