A national discussion over whether the terminally ill should be permitted to end their lives appears to be headed to the District and Maryland, where lawmakers are proposing “Death With Dignity” laws as more than a dozen other states wrestle with the issue.
Five states currently permit “aid in dying,” as advocates prefer to call laws that have commonly been referred to as physician-assisted suicide.
Voters in Oregon and Washington passed ballot measures allowing the practice, while legislators in Vermont and judges in Montana and New Mexico have authorized it.
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced her “Death with Dignity Act of 2015” on Wednesday. In Maryland, Sen. Ronald N. Young (D-Frederick) said Thursday he is in the process of drafting a bill, also titled “Death With Dignity,” and plans to introduce the measure in the coming weeks.
“It’s allowing the person to say, ‘I’m in pain, I’m in sound mind, and I don’t want to go on like this,’ ” Young said.
The Death With Dignity campaign won national attention last year thanks to the efforts of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, to advocate for laws allowing mentally competent, terminally ill adults to seek medical assistance in dying.
Maynard died Nov. 1 after moving from California to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s Death With Dignity law.
“Everyone agrees that Brittany Maynard was a game-changing advocate,” said Anne Singer, a spokeswoman for Compassion and Choices, a Colorado-based group that offers counseling to terminally ill Americans and advocates for state aid-in-dying laws.
Besides D.C. and Maryland, aid-in-dying legislation is expected to be introduced or debated in at least 15 statehouses this year, Singer said.
The issue was highlighted closer to Washington after the death of John B. Rehm, a lawyer who had suffered from Parkinson’s disease.
His wife, National Public Radio host Diane Rehm, described how her husband wished to die after his illness progressed to the point that he could no longer use his limbs or perform basic functions without assistance.
Cheh said Maynard’s and Rehm’s deaths hadn’t led her to introduce her bill. Rather, she said, she has contemplated pursuing such a measure for years but held back while the council took up other hot-button issues.
“I think the time is right,” she said. “There are some things that are momentous and are deserving of singular attention. . . . This is something we ought to take up as a community.”
Young said Maynard’s plight had an impression on him, as well as the sentiments of his constituents.
“I know a lot of people who have said, ‘I want that option,’ ” he said. “I would just like to take the stigma off of it.”
Young said he’s gotten a “tremendous response” in support of the bill since announcing his intentions earlier this week. He said he has also encountered some opposition, mainly from devout Catholics.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spoke out against physician-assisted suicide in 2011, saying legalization would prompt a “radical change” in society.
“Jewish and Christian moral traditions have long rejected the idea of assisting in another’s suicide,” the bishops said. “Catholic teaching views suicide as a grave offense against love of self, one that also breaks the bonds of love and solidarity with family, friends, and God.”
The Archdiocese of Washington did not respond to requests for comment Thursday on the local proposals. Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl previously spoke out on the subject in 1999 while serving as bishop of Pittsburgh, calling assisted-suicide laws part of a “eugenic philosophy” that “only adds to the problems of our society, already mired in violence and death.”
While the practice has been called “assisted suicide” in common parlance, advocates avoid the term as they have sought to draw a sharp distinction between the suicides of those who are physically healthy but mentally ill and the decisions of people who are mentally competent and wish to hasten an impending death.
Cheh’s bill would allow patients with illnesses likely to result in death within six months to seek medication to end their lives. Two physicians would have to consent to dispensing the life-ending drugs after certifying the patient’s terminal prognosis and mental competency.
The bill is modeled on Oregon’s law, which took effect in 1997. Cheh said the experience there has given her confidence that her bill is well-crafted.
“Very few people have actually used it,” she said, adding that not all of those patients who gain authorization end up hastening their deaths.
It is not clear how quickly or how far each bill might advance. Young said he has gotten supportive signals from Senate leadership but said his discussions about its prospects have been cursory.
Incoming Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who is Catholic, told an archdiocesan newspaper in October that he would oppose attempts to legalize aid-in-dying. “I believe a physician’s role is to save lives, not terminate them,” he told the Catholic Standard.
The future of Cheh’s bill will largely depend on the wishes of the colleague who chairs the committee to which it is referred.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he is likely to refer the bill to the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, which is chaired by Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5). McDuffie said Thursday he had yet to review Cheh’s bill and had no immediate reaction to it.
What is clear is that the Death With Dignity debate stands to be less strident in D.C., whose liberal lawmakers have long pushed the envelope on social issues that have been deeply divisive elsewhere in the country. The District has successfully legalized same-sex marriage, but Capitol Hill lawmakers have balked at attempts to allow marijuana possession or use public funds to fund abortions for low-income women.
“In terms of occupying the council, I wouldn’t put it in the same league as marriage equality,” an issue that drew hundreds of witnesses to hearings, Mendelson said. “This is not a jurisdiction that gets all twisted up over a lot of these social issues.”
The debate carries an additional dimension in the District, where local laws are subject to congressional review.
Mendelson, currently in a standoff with Capitol Hill Republicans over marijuana legalization, declined to speculate on how Congress might react to an aid-in-dying bill.