Congressional committee deals setback to ‘death with dignity’

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent

The District of Columbia’s Death With Dignity Act was dealt a surprise congressional setback late Thursday night, when the House Appropriations Committee voted not only to defund the implementation of the bill, which had been expected by proponents, but to rescind the new law completely.

The law, passed by the D.C. City Council by an 11-2 vote last fall, would allow terminally ill patients to receive a life-ending prescription from a physician who determines they have less than six months to live.

Congress has oversight authority over all D.C. laws, which means it can vote to nullify an action of the City Council within 30 legislative days after the law in question is signed. A Senate resolution to do so did not make it out of committee early this year, and while a House resolution was passed in committee, it never made it to a floor vote. Hence the D.C. legislation became law on Feb. 18, when the 30-day window closed.

But in what proponents of the measure call an “end run,” Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who is a physician, proposed an amendment to the current House Appropriations bill that would void the D.C. law completely.

In introducing his amendment, Harris said that Congress has “the ability to judge anything the District of Columbia does that is bad policy. This is bad policy.” He went on to say that one-quarter of patients who would seek help under the act would do so out of depression, and “I went to medical school. The treatment for depression was not death.”

Kim Callinan, chief program officer of Compassion & Choices, which supports “death with dignity” legislation throughout the country, said that Harris’ interpretation of the bill is wrong. Callinan said Harris called the bill a “physician-assisted suicide act” and spoke about doctors directly injecting patients with lethal drugs, when in fact the bill requires that patients be able to ingest any medication on their own. “The physician doesn’t act, the patient does. [Harris] doesn’t realize how this works,” she said.

In response to Harris’ assertion that patients seeking death would be depressed, Callinan cited the requirement that patients undergo a psychological screening. She said a similar provision has worked well in Oregon, where medical aid in dying has been allowed since 1997.

She added that the bill does not facilitate “suicide,” which she defines as a person ending their life “when they otherwise would not have died.” Medical Aid in Dying, she said, is when disease makes the end of life inevitable and a patient chooses to make that end less painful.

Mary Klein, a D.C. resident who has terminal ovarian cancer, agrees. “Death with dignity is not suicide,” she said after the amendment was passed. “It’s the cancer that is slowly killing me. Suicide is when a person who is not terminally ill takes his or her own life.”

Klein has been following the fate of the D.C. bill closely, as she sees it as tied to her own. In a profile by Yahoo News last month she described her decision to eventually make use of the D.C. Act.  “This was horrible news,” she said of the Appropriations Committee’s 28-24 vote, which was essentially along party lines. “The committee voted to impose their will and beliefs on me and take away the most personal choices — how to die.”

Callinan takes issue with the timing of the amendment. “It was an abuse of power,” she says. “The opportunity for them to repeal that law was in February when they were going through the 30-day review. That failed. And to do it now is to misuse the appropriations process to do what opponents of medical aid in dying could not openly do before. This end run is shameful, it’s wrong and now D.C. residents who are dying are being deprived of the peace of mind that this law brings.”

The measure still faces a vote in the full House and must also be passed by the Senate. Callinan says proponents will be appealing to the 77 members of Congress and 12 senators from states where similar legislation is in effect, because “this would send a federal message that those state laws are also in jeopardy from Congress.”

 

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