The D.C. Council on Tuesday gave final approval to legislation that would allow physicians to prescribe fatal drugs to terminally ill residents in the city, making the District the seventh jurisdiction nationwide to allow the practice.
The council voted 11 to 2 in favor of the bill, with members Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) casting the dissenting votes.
The vote, which took a matter of minutes and involved no discussion, capped more than a year of intense discussion and lobbying on the part of lawmakers, advocates and opponents.
D.C. is the first predominantly black community to legalize what is called “death with dignity,” overcoming objections from some African American residents and others who worried that ill patients could be coerced into an early death.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has said she will not veto the bill but has not indicated whether she will sign it. If she does nothing after 10 days, the legislation automatically becomes an act. It is sent to Congress for a 30-day review period; if Congress takes no action, it becomes law.
Compassion & Choices, which has lobbied for right-to-die bills across the country, hailed the passage of legislation in the nation’s capital as a significant victory for its movement. Colorado voters last week approved a ballot measure authorizing medical aid in dying.
“The fact that we have now gotten three states with diverse populations across the country, from the West Coast to the Midwest to the East Coast, is a huge sign of momentum and support for the issue across political, racial and demographic grounds,” said Sean Crowley, a Compassion and Choices spokesman.
The D.C. Catholic Conference, one of the groups opposed to the legislation, vowed to press Bowser to veto the legislation, despite her public statements that she would not.
“This bill imperils residents, particularly those who are sick, elderly, disabled and the uninsured,” said Michael Scott, director of the conference. “It allows for coercion and abuse, including third parties administering the lethal drugs to patients who may or may not be incapacitated or requesting assisted suicide.”
The Death with Dignity Act, sponsored by council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), is modeled after Oregon’s 1997 first-in-the-nation law.
The bill would allow terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to request fatal drugs from a physician after consulting a doctor over two weeks, with two witnesses attesting that the decision is voluntary. Patients must ingest the medication themselves without the assistance of doctors or family members, and physicians can refer them to counseling if they think their judgment is impaired.
An analysis by the District’s chief financial officer estimated that fewer than 10 people a year would exercise the option.
Advocates say the measure would allow terminally ill patients to choose the timing and manner of their deaths and to avoid prolonged suffering.
But the practice is opposed by many who say it violates their religious beliefs. Advocates for the disabled say they fear people will be steered to premature death, and medical professionals say it violates the Hippocratic oath.
It has faced particular opposition from African Americans, who make up nearly half of the District’s population. Some say they are unsettled by the practice because of historical abuse by the medical establishment and concerns that they may be steered to early deaths.
Physician-assisted death has been authorized in Oregon, Washington state, Montana and Vermont — states with mostly white populations. In June, a right-to-die law took effect in California, despite opposition from Latinos and Catholics. Colorado voters passed a similar law Nov. 8.