The D.C. Council will take up legislation to allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill residents on Nov. 1, lawmakers decided Tuesday.
The council opted to put the matter on its legislative agenda at the start of next month, when it will hold the first of two required votes on the bill.
The council chambers were filled with people on both sides of the issue, but the lawmakers did not debate or discuss it or raise any questions. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) announced that the legislative body would take action next month.
The bill would authorize doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients who are mentally sound and have been diagnosed with having less than six months to live.
It is unclear if Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) will sign the bill. She has not taken a position on it, although her top health official has testified against it, saying it violates the Hippocratic oath. The mayor’s staff offered amendments that would allow the city’s health department to offer training for physicians and to provide patients with information about various lethal drugs and their side effects.
Mendelson said the lack of questions about the legislation suggested minds were already made up.
“Most of the members already know where they are on the bill,” Mendelson said. “I’m sure there will be a robust debate.”
Eight members — a majority of the 13-member council — have expressed support for the legislation.
The nation’s capital would be the sixth jurisdiction to authorize the long-controversial practice that has gained increasing acceptance among elected officials and the public. 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 aid-in-dying violates their religious beliefs, advocates for the disabled who fear people will be steered to premature death and medical professionals who say it violates the Hippocratic oath.
And it faces particular opposition from African Americans, who make up nearly half of the District’s population and are among the most likely to oppose such legislation. Some African Americans say they are unsettled by the practice because of historical abuse by the medical establishment and concerns that they may be steered to an early death.
Council member LaRuby May (D-Ward 8), a supporter of the legislation, has said constituents from her poor and predominantly black district deserve the same health care and end-of-life options as people living on the West Coast, where physician-assisted suicide is legal. She dismissed concerns that inequalities in the health-care system would mean minorities would be steered to early deaths.
“You can’t create a racist system when you are already living in a racist system,” May said.
Advocates are hoping that passage in the District will allow them to break through a racial barrier in their national campaign. To date, physician-assisted death has been authorized in Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont — states with mostly white populations. In June, a right-to-death law took effect in California, despite opposition from Latinos and Catholics.
But even if the council and mayor approve the legislation, Congress has the power to review and strike down D.C. laws — which could turn the emotionally charged issue into a broader political fight. A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) did not return requests for comment.