Opponents Urge D.C. Council to Reject Bill Legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide

By Barbara Hollingsworth | September 21, 2016 | 3:36 PM EDT

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3). (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) –A bill currently under review by the Council of the District of Columbia would legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Patterned on Oregon’s assisted suicide law, the Death With Dignity Act of 2015 - which was introduced last year by Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and is scheduled for markup next month - would “provide procedures and requirements regarding the request for and dispensation of covered medications to qualified patients seeking to die in a humane and dignified manner.”

But opponents say that the bill lacks sufficient safeguards to protect the sick and disabled, poses a grave danger to the city’s most vulnerable residents, and ignores medical advances in pain relief that make such legislation unnecessary.

 “The essence of the disability community’s position is this: If assisted suicide is legal, some people’s lives will be ended without their consent through mistakes and abuse. No safeguards have ever been enacted or even proposed that can prevent this outcome, which can never be undone,” Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, told reporters on Tuesday.

“The so-called safeguards are very weak because diagnoses of terminal illness are often wrong, leading people to give up on treatment and lose good years of their lives, and endangering people with disabilities and chronic illness,” as well as people suffering from depression and other psychiatric disabilities, she said.

“The oversight and data in the Oregon model, which the D.C. bill keeps very much intact, are grossly insufficient. The reporting requirements lack teeth, there’s no investigation of abuse or even a way to report it, and if you look at international models, the Netherlands has been a Pandora’s box,” Golden continued.

“Where assisted suicide is legal, an heir who stands to inherit from the patient or an abusive caregiver may steer someone toward assisted suicide, may legally witness the request, may pick up the lethal dose, and in the end even give the drug because no objective witnesses are required at the death, so who would know?”

Golden explained that “there is a deadly mix between our broken profit-driven healthcare system and legalizing assisted suicide, which immediately becomes the cheapest so-called ‘treatment’. Direct coercion is not even necessary if insurers deny or even merely delay expensive life-sustaining treatment. The person will be steered toward assisted suicide….  

“We know this has happened in Oregon, where patients Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup, both of whom had cancer, were informed by the Oregon Health Plan that it would not pay for a particular prescribed chemotherapy, but would pay for, among other things, their assisted suicide,” Golden pointed out.

Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. (DREDF)

“It’s called a free choice, but for these patients it would have been a phony form of freedom.”

Golden added that 15 physician-assisted suicide laws have been defeated in 12 states during the past two years after “legislators saw the truth about these dangers.”

Such laws are unnecessary because a legal alternative is already on the books in all 50 states, she added.

“Anyone dying in discomfort that is not otherwise relievable may legally today, in any state, receive what is called ‘palliative sedation’ - where the patient is sedated to the point where the discomfort is relieved while the dying process takes place. So there is already a legal solution to any uncomfortable death that does not endanger other people the way assisted suicide laws do.”

“If palliative sedation is legally available in all 50 states, doesn’t that undercut the main reason for assisted suicide, which is the relief of unbearable suffering?” CNSNews.com asked Golden.

 “The main proponent group for the legalization of assisted suicide, which when I was growing up was called the Hemlock Society but which has changed their name several times and is now called Compassion and Choices, does not reject or condemn the usefulness of palliative sedation,” she replied.

“But they also don’t acknowledge that it addresses a significant proportion of their whole point [regarding assisted suicide], which really calls into question why it is still being so heavily emphasized when legal treatments exist to address the same problem.”

Another opponent of the D.C. bill is Marine combat veteran J.J. Hansonexecutive director of The Patients Rights Action Fund, who was diagnosed with the same form of terminal brain cancer as Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman who moved to Oregon in 2014 so she could legally kill herself.

Last October, California became the fifth state to pass a law allowing physician-assisted suicide, joining Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. The California law went into effect June 9th.

Hanson told reporters the D.C. bill would allow a terminally ill patient like him to request death-inducing pills up to six months before they are expected to die. But that’s a problem, he said.

“In my particular case, when I was diagnosed I wasn’t depressed at all. It wasn’t until Month 5 that I became depressed. Now if I had received those pills, if it was legal in the state I was in at the time, I would have had them next to me when I was going through that state of depression. There would have been no oversight. There would have been no follow-up from a doctor. There would have been no one checking in on me. I would have had the easiest ability to commit suicide at that point in time.

“And I don’t know that I would have made the same decision had I had those pills next to me. I like to think that I would’ve, but I don’t know,” he said, pointing out that in Oregon “less than 2 percent of diagnoses actually get reviewed for depression.”

“This idea that there are safeguards in place is completely a misnomer,” Hanson continued. “The proponents of assisted suicide have started to glorify it as ‘courageous’ and ‘dignified’ ... But this is just hyperbole. They’re glorifying death.”

Another opponent warned that legalizing assisted suicide would result in “open season on black people.”

“I got involved with this issue in Massachusetts in 2012 where the faith communities, in particular the black churches, played a significant role in rolling back the [physician-assisted suicide measure] that was on the ballot,” said Rev. Eugene Rivers, founder of the Azusa Christian Community Center in Dorchester, Mass.

“Their concern and their opposition to the idea of ‘death with dignity’ was inspired by their sensitivity to the fact that in all the discussions… in Massachusetts, which is a very liberal-leaning state, and in California, there was no consideration given to how such legislation would impact upon the poorest and most vulnerable populations.

“The concern was that ’death with dignity’ can end up being essentially a hypodermic needle that is applied to the poorest of the poor, because since their financial situations are at best bleak, they would be the first ones who would be essentially politically disposed of” if euthanasia is adopted as a social policy, he said.

“It’s a social justice issue, it’s an ethical issue, it’s a fairness issue, and those who really are concerned about justice and equality have to be willing to consider all the impact [physician-assisted suicide] would have on all the poorest and most socially and economically vulnerable populations.”

Rivers rejected the idea that assisted suicide, which he called “back-end eugenics”, is about reducing pain. “It’s about reducing not pain, but people who represent a class of individuals, in many cases, who a lot of people simply do not care about.”

Mt. Vernon, N.Y. Mayor Richard Thomas, who opposed assisted suicide legislation in his state, said his majority-minority community of 80,000 is “very similar to Washington, D.C.”

“The issue of assisted suicide should be dead on arrival going to the D.C. Council. What I know is that to enable insurance companies to prescribe death as a remedy is a bad decision. And when you step back and look at the context of what majority-minority communities face in particular, access to health care, access to quality services are always a real challenge….

“Bureaucrats want to put money in the budget by empowering companies to basically pick and choose who lives and who dies. And when you run the numbers and you do the math, it quickly becomes apparent that this is just a quick way to get people off the books,” Thomas said.

“So if someone has diabetes, or a respiratory disease, or some other ailment, the remedy could be to take an $80 pill as opposed to $40,000 dialysis… I think it’s critical that we don’t empower bureaucrats to say that it’s cheaper to prescribe death than to keep people alive.”

A fact sheet published by No DC Suicide said that the bill “is part of an aggressive, national effort to legalize assisted suicide in states across the country led by Compassion and Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society.”

A group of 15 doctors who “proudly serve the sick and dying residents of the District of Columbia” sent a letter to council members last October opposing the legislation.

Quoting the American Medical Association’s official statement (“Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks…”) the doctors urged D.C. Council members to “take a stand against this dangerous legislation.”