IT HAS been 21 months since a bill that would allow terminally ill people to end their own lives was introduced in the D.C. Council. Fifteen months have passed since the public hearing in which 69 people testified about the bill. That the measure is only now coming up for a vote is an indicator of the strong emotions stirred by the issue. Hopefully council members will be guided by the experience of states that have been pioneers in the death-with-dignity movement. They have carefully crafted laws giving the terminally ill control over the timing and manner of their death while putting in place safeguards to prevent abuse and medical mistakes.
The council’s Committee on Health and Human Services is set to take up on Wednesday a measure that would offer the option of assisted dying to terminally ill adults. The bill, sponsored by D.C. Council Member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and modeled after legislation enacted by Oregon in 1994, would allow terminally ill people who are D.C. residents to obtain and use prescriptions from their physicians for self-administered lethal doses. Built into the law are stringent safeguards, including a life expectancy of less than six months, a finding of mental capability, a concurring opinion from a second doctor, waiting periods, and mandatory discussion of hospice and other options.
Arguments aired at the council’s July 2015 hearing mirrored a national debate that has intensified as more states take up the issue. People who have watched loved ones endure end-of-life suffering and people who are battling debilitating illnesses talked about the need for humane alternatives. They cited medical advances that have been a two-edged sword, prolonging life but creating situations in which patients are kept alive with extensive suffering and diminished quality of life. Opponents included those who cited religious or moral grounds, physicians who see it as anathema to their oath of healing, and disability rights activists who see it as a risk to people with disabilities and to the elderly.
Worries about assisted dying leading to abuses or being a slippery slope to euthanasia have not been borne out after years of experience in Oregon and other states that have followed suit. The law is invoked sparingly, and many individuals who obtain prescriptions never use them. “For them,” Peg Sandeen of the Death with Dignity National Center told council members, “the Death with Dignity Act provided peace of mind and a modicum of control during their final days.”
Five states allow assisted dying, and 30 states have legislation pending or planned. The District should add its name to the list of places that offer their citizens compassion and control at life’s end.
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