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D.C. Council debates legalizing assisted suicide

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WASHINGTON, D.C., July 13, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) – The Council of the District of Columbia held a hearing on July 10 to debate the Death With Dignity Act 2015, which seeks to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the nation's capital.

Bill B21-38, which would allow doctors to provide lethal drugs to patients diagnosed with a terminal illness and are deemed to have less than six months to live, was introduced by council member Mary Cheh on January 14, 2015 and subsequently referred to the D.C. Council's Committee on Health and Human Services. 

B21-38 is based on Oregon's assisted suicide legislation of 1997.

Both advocates and critics, including doctors, nurses, lawyers, and patients, were on hand to voice their positions on doctor-assisted death.

Dan Diaz, husband of the late Brittany Maynard, who committed suicide at her home in Portland, Oregon on November 1 by swallowing a fatal dose of doctor-prescribed barbiturates, spoke in favor of the D.C. bill.

"The end goal is allowing that person to control their own path," Diaz said.  "It is an option that a person needs to pursue for themselves." 

Council member LaRuby May (D-Ward 8), who along with Cheh was one of only three councilors at Friday's hearing – Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) was the third – said the bill "grants patients the right to transition comfortably without pain and agony."

However, opponent of the bill LaQuandra Nesbitt, who is D.C.'s health director, said the measure "catapults the District into uncharted territory that we are not prepared to navigate."  Nesbitt raised numerous questions about the application of the bill that are not defined in the proposal.  Areas of concern included the type of drug to be prescribed, doctors' qualifications, and the possibility of misdiagnosis of "less than six months to live," as well as the consequences of patients choosing to kill themselves in a public area of a city that "attracts 19 million tourists a year."

Dr. Kevin Donovan, director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics and a professor at Georgetown University Medical Center, said, "We physicians know that predicting the duration of a terminal disease is nearly impossible to do accurately.  Rather than enable our patients' suicide, we should be improving palliative care and hospice options near the end of life.  That would allow patients to truly live their final days with comfort and dignity."

Samantha Crane, who represented the Autistic Self Advocacy Network at the hearing, said the bill would make already vulnerable people even more susceptible to harm.

"A lot of people with disabilities have been diagnosed with six-month terminal conditions, either due to misdiagnosis or because they do in fact have an illness, and they just were lucky and were able to survive for longer than six months," Crane told The Daily Signal.  "We feel that creating a new fast track towards death would really harm our community."

Organizations such as the Pennsylvania Coalition to Stop Doctor-Prescribed Suicide and Canada's Euthanasia Prevention Coalition have pointed repeatedly to the flaws and abuse inherent in Oregon's doctor-assisted death legislation.

The Pennsylvania Coalition to Stop Doctor-Prescribed Suicide states on its "Get the Facts" webpage that when doctor-prescribed suicide is made legal, it quickly becomes just another form of treatment, and as such, it will always be the cheapest option.  This is troublesome in a cost-conscious health care environment, the Pennsylvania Coalition says.

The group notes that assisted suicide requests from people with terminal illness are usually based on fear and depression, which can be successfully treated if properly recognized, but under Oregon and Washington law, there is no requirement that family be notified when a suicide prescription request is made.

Alex Schadenberg of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition gives compelling evidence in favor of the "slippery slope" argument that legalizing doctor-assisted death leads to both higher rates of suicide and abuse of the elderly and vulnerable.

Schadenberg notes that assisted suicide deaths in Oregon have risen dramatically every year since legalization and that nothing in the legislation prevents elder abuse.

According to the 2014 Oregon assisted suicide report, the number of assisted suicide deaths rose from 73 in 2013 to 105 in 2014, an increase of 44 percent.

"The Oregon report makes it appear that there is no undue influence to pressure people to assisted suicide," Schadenberg points out.  "In Oregon, however, patients desiring treatment under the Oregon Health Plan have been offered assisted suicide instead."

Margaret Dore, the president of Choice is an Illusion and a lawyer from Seattle, said that the Oregon assisted suicide statistics are consistent with elder abuse.  She wrote in an article on the Choice is an Illusion website that "Oregon's assisted suicide law, itself, allows the lethal dose to be administered without oversight. This creates the opportunity for an heir, or someone else who will benefit from the patient's death, to administer the lethal dose to the patient without the patient's consent. Even if he struggled, who would know?"

Dore argues that "Oregon's law is written so as to allow the lethal dose to be administered to patients without their consent and without anyone knowing how they died. The law thus provides the opportunity for the perfect crime. Per the new report, the persons dying (or killed) under that law are disproportionately seniors with money, a group disproportionately victimized by financial abuse and exploitation. Oregon's new report is consistent with elder abuse."

While D.C.'s assisted suicide bill is being discussed, similar legislation in California was defeated last week.

"California assisted suicide bill SB 128 has died a peaceful death in the California House after Democrat legislators opposed it based on opposition from the disability community and the Latino community," wrote Alex Schadenberg on his blog.  He noted that the assisted suicide lobby has organized more than 25 attempts to legalize assisted suicide in the U.S. this year, with all of those attempts failing.

If D.C.'s Death with Dignity Act 2015 is passed, it will still require congressional approval before becoming law.

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