Legislation introduced in the District of Columbia Council this week would empower patients with terminal illnesses to obtain doctor-prescribed medication to facilitate self-termination.
On Jan. 14, Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward3) introduced the “Death with Dignity Act of 2015,” which gives patients greater control over end-of-life choices, she said.
“In the states where similar ‘Death with Dignity’ laws exist, experience has shown that relatively few patients will request life-ending medication and not everyone who receives the medication will use it. However, being provided with this option is a source of great comfort,” Cheh said in a statement. “In the face of a terminal illness, patients are able to continue treatment with the peace of mind that they ultimately have the choice to die in a dignified and humane manner–if they choose to do so.”
The bill establishes a process for a terminal patient, who is likely to die within six months, to request controlled medication to end his or her life. The patient has to coordinate with an attending physician, who is responsible for the care and treatment of the patient, and a consulting physician, who is primarily responsible for the verification of the terminal diagnosis, the patient’s competency, and the voluntariness of the patient’s decision. Once it is determined that the patient has sound mind, he or she must then make an oral request for the medication. No fewer than 15 days later, another oral and a written request must be made. The patient may rescind his or her request at any time.
“Rigorous provisions have been included in this bill to protect patients from undue influence or coercion and to ensure that vulnerable populations are protected. To safeguard the appropriate use of this system, the bill also directs the Mayor to develop rules for the disposal of unused medication while instructing the Department of Health to monitor and maintain records of its use,” said Councilmember Cheh.
The “death with dignity” debate was reignited in November when Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with incurable brain cancer who moved with her husband to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s Death With Dignity Act, took lethal medication prescribed by a doctor, hastening her death.
Oregon, in 1997, became the first state to make it legal for doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients. As of December 2013, more than 750 patients had used the law to end their lives. Washington and Vermont have since passed similar legislation.
Opponents feared such laws could become a slippery slope, by which elderly, disabled or low-income patients could be coerced into precipitating their deaths. But such abuses did not materialize, studies found.
Others said physician-assisted suicide violated moral and religious codes. Cheh’s bill will likely face similar criticism.
“I expect that some may oppose this bill on the basis of religious beliefs or moral principle, but there is latitude to recognize that all life is valuable while also respecting the rights and decisions of others. When death is imminent, patients should be able to maintain their autonomy and exercise self-determination in their final days,” said Councilmember Cheh.