The nation’s capital could be on track to join those U.S. jurisdictions where terminally ill patients can legally seek to end their lives with medication prescribed by physicians.
D.C. lawmakers on Friday held a hearing on the Death With Dignity Act of 2015, which would authorize doctors to prescribe lethal medication to patients who have been given six months or less to live and wish to die on their own terms.
The bill, introduced by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), is modeled on the assisted-suicide law in Oregon, where more than 850 terminally ill patients have taken their lives in the 18 years since the statute was passed.
As in Oregon, the District’s bill would not require a physician’s supervision during the administration of the lethal medication. But it would require the patient to self-administer the drug, typically by mouth.
Two doctors would also be required to determine that a patient qualifies as terminally ill and is both “capable” and not “suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgement.”
Legislators have proposed similar laws in 24 states this year, and advocates say legislation is close to passage in California and New Jersey. The D.C. Council is not expected to vote before the fall.
In addition to Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico all allow some kind of aid in dying for terminally ill patients. The issue has sparked fierce national debate, which translated into emotional — and sometimes angry — testimony inside D.C. Council chambers Friday.
The hours-long hearing drew testimony from dozens of witnesses, including the widower of Brittany Maynard, who garnered national headlines last year as a 29-year-old brain cancer patient who opted to end her life.
Supporters of the bill said they fear dying in horrific pain or being deprived of the right to choose their fate. Opponents said they feared murders or coercion for the sake of inheritance, a slippery slope of approved deaths, and broader abuse.
“There is a lot of passion on both sides,” said Mickey MacIntyre, the chief program officer at Compassion and Choices, an advocacy group that supports the legislation.
Proponents of the D.C. bill, including Susan Farris, who has Stage 4 HER2-positive breast cancer, cast the law as “a way out” for the terminally ill and a way for patients to exercise an autonomous and deeply personal choice.
“I have no interest in dying. I’m fighting like hell to stay alive,” Farris said. “However I don’t want to suffer.”
Critics of the legislation included a coalition of advocates for the disabled, who wore red T-shirts reading “No D.C. suicide” and said they feared the legislation could pressure disabled people to opt for death in an effort to unburden their families.
D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt, one of the most prominent opponents to testify against the legislation, said the bill “catapults the District into uncharted territory that we are not prepared to navigate.”
She argued that the legislation leaves many issues undefined, including the type of medication to be administered and the qualifications a doctor would need to determine a patient’s prognosis and mental health.
Noting that the bill does not require a physician to be in attendance at the time of death, Nesbitt also questioned whether a patient could choose to die in a public place in a city that “attracts 19 million tourists a year.”
The health director’s testimony provoked a tense, nearly half-hour exchange with Cheh, who bombarded Nesbitt with questions about her definition of suicide and the reliability of terminal prognoses.
Like other D.C. laws, the Death with Dignity Act would ultimately be subject to congressional approval if passed by the council and signed by the mayor.
It’s unclear which, if any, members of the overwhelmingly liberal council would oppose the bill. Only three — Cheh, Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who heads the Health and Human Services Committee, and LaRuby May (D-Ward 8) were present at Friday’s hearing.
May, who often invokes God from the dais, said the law appeared to contain the necessary safeguards to prevent abuses and did not appear to defy religious opposition to suicide.
The bill “grants patients the right to transition comfortably without pain and agony,” she said.
A spokesman for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said her position on the issue is currently “under review.”
MacIntyre, who is gay, said that his own experience watching a dozen friends die during the 1980s AIDS epidemic informed his view of assisted suicide.
Baby boomers who are now contemplating their own mortality — and that of their parents — could be the tipping factor that makes such legislation more widespread, he said.
“It’s the personal experience; it’s the heightened awareness in the popular culture,” he said. “And the result of that is increased advocacy and the desire to make change.”