Legislation that would allow doctors to help terminally ill District residents end their lives will face a crucial Wednesday vote before the D.C. Council.
Advocates for physician-assisted suicide are hopeful that the nation’s capital will be the next jurisdiction where patients facing agonizing deaths will have the option to legally end their lives, and the first since California’s governor signed similar legislation exactly one year ago.
The five-member Committee on Health and Human Services is scheduled Wednesday to take up assisted suicide legislation, more than a year after its last hourslong, emotional hearing on the bill.
The proposal by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) is modeled after Oregon’s first-in-the-nation system for assisted suicide. It would require patients with less than six months to live to consult two doctors over a period of at least two weeks before receiving life-ending drugs, which they must ingest themselves.
The reaction to Cheh’s bill has mirrored end-of-life debates happening across the country. As terminally ill patients plead for an option to die on their own terms, some religious leaders are opposed to hastening death. Meanwhile, some medical professionals and disability advocates have raised concerns about unintended consequences, such as elderly people who would be coerced to early deaths.
Wednesday’s hearing is focused on amending the legislation, and no public testimony will be heard. The committee’s chairwoman, Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), opposes the bill but is taking the unusual step of allowing it to progress for a vote anyway.
Compassion and Choices, a national right-to-die advocacy group, has been lobbying D.C. Council members. Among their volunteers is Dan Diaz, the widower of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old California woman with brain cancer who drew national media attention for moving to Oregon to legally end her life.
But Alexander says she’s not compelled by publicity and is more concerned by local physicians telling her they think the practice violates their oath to do no harm.
“If you want to end your life, that’s fine, but don’t make it incumbent on doctors to assist you with ending your life,” said Alexander.
Cheh counters that no one uncomfortable with helping a patient die would be affected by her legislation.
“Nobody is obliged to participate. Not hospitals, not pharmacies, not doctors, and certainly not people themselves,” said Cheh, who also serves on the health committee. “There are safeguards to make sure this is not a rash decision or a product of depression.”
Alexander says Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) is likely to be the swing vote on the health committee, with LaRuby May (D-Ward 8) previously backing the bill and Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) likely opposed. Grosso’s spokesman declined to comment on the legislation ahead of the hearing.
The legislation faces uncertain prospects if it advances to the full council and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who hasn’t taken a position but whose appointed health director previously testified against the bill. The Republican-controlled Congress could also intervene by using its rarely-invoked power to strike down D.C. laws.
Advocates are also gearing up to reintroduce aid-in-dying legislation in Maryland after a defeat earlier this year.