News Headlines > Washington DC takes next step towards legalising assisted suicide

04 November 2016 | by Catholic News Service

Washington DC takes next step towards legalising assisted suicide

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If the bill eventually becomes law, the district would be the US's seventh jurisdiction to allow doctor-assisted suicide

Washington City Council has moved one step closer to allowing doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who want to end their lives.

The council voted 11-2 this week (1 November) to pass the ‘Death with Dignity Act’ that would allow a physician to legally prescribe life-shortening drugs to patients who have been deemed mentally competent and who have received a terminal diagnosis of six months or less.

Ward 7 Council member Yvette Alexander, chairperson of the Health and Human Service Committee, and Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau offered the only votes opposing the measure.

"The D.C. City Council has taken another step toward passing a fatally flawed bill that would legalise assisted suicide in Washington, D.C.", said Michael Scott, director of the District of Columbia Catholic Conference, which represents the public policy interests of the Catholic Church in the district. The conference joined a broad-based coalition of other groups in opposing the measure.

"This bill discriminates against our African-American and Hispanic neighbours, sick seniors, the disabled, the uninsured and all who are vulnerable in our community", Scott said in a statement after the vote. "Our coalition will continue to fight this bill, which has few safeguards to protect the vulnerable and does nothing to help the thousands of D.C. residents desperate for access to better health care and improved social services, such as counselling."

Opponents say the bill is flawed because it endangers "high-risk" populations, including the elderly, the uninsured and underinsured, the homeless, low-income individuals and those with intellectual disabilities.

They also point out it does not require doctors to give patients a screening for depression before providing them with the lethal prescription; the patient is not required to notify family members before taking the medication; and no doctor, nurse, or legal witness is required to be present when the lethal dose is taken.

This week’s vote does not mean legalised assisted suicide is now the law in the district. The bill is scheduled for a second vote on 15 November. After that, it moves to Mayor Muriel Bowser for approval or veto.

Council member Alexander told city lawmakers this week that she could not support the measure and listed several reasons why: the fear of patient coercion and undue influences on the poor, the elderly and the disabled; the lack of oversight during the administration of the drugs; the difficulty "predicting the final six-month window"; the pressure on physicians "to engage in behaviour in contradiction to the Hippocratic oath"; and the mistrust such law would create between the public and the medical community.

Introduced in 2015 by Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, the law permits a physician to prescribe lethal drugs to terminal patients without fear of legal prosecution.

When she introduced the bill, Cheh said permitting the terminally ill to kill themselves provides "a humane and dignified manner" of dying. This week she said the measure "allows those people on death's doorstep to choose a compassionate death".

Dr LaQuandra Nesbitt, appointed by Bowser to be director of the city's Department of Health, has openly opposed the bill, saying it violates her Hippocratic oath.

If the bill eventually becomes law, the district would be the nation's seventh jurisdiction to allow doctors to assist the terminally ill to kill themselves. Six states –- Vermont, Oregon, Washington state, Montana, New Mexico and California -– allow assisted suicide. California just issued a regulation allowing people who have been hospitalised for mental illness to request physician-assisted suicide.

A ballot measure to legalise assisted suicide is on the ballot for November in Colorado. In Michigan, legislation has been proposed for the 2017 session. Compassion & Choices, an organisation that advocates for assisted suicide, is targeting several states for initiatives in 2017: Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Utah, New York, Delaware, Iowa and Hawaii.

Similar physician-assisted suicide laws have been introduced and have failed in 22 states.

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