Race against time for Congress to block DC's assisted suicide law

Prescription bottle Credit Charles Williams via Flickr CC BY 20 filter added CNA Charles Williams via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) filter added.

Congress took its first step toward blocking D.C.'s doctor-prescribed suicide law on Thursday, but the action will need the support of both houses of Congress and the President.

"America must be a nation that supports and cherishes human life, no matter the age, ethnicity or health of that life," Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) stated Jan. 12 after introducing a resolution in the Senate that opposes Washington, D.C.'s "Death With Dignity Act of 2015." The law had legalized doctor-prescribed suicide in the District.

D.C.'s law, Lankford said, "would erode our culture's respect for life, and possibly lead to the mistreatment and exploitation of the disabled and most vulnerable among us."

The city council of Washington, D.C. had passed the "Death With Dignity Act" in 2015, with Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) signing it in December.

Congress has 30 legislative days to review a law of the District of Columbia once it is passed by the city government. Resolutions of disapproval must be passed by both houses and be signed by the president to block a D.C. law.

Companion resolutions of disapproval of D.C.'s law were introduced in the Senate by Sen. Lankford, who chairs the subcommittee with oversight of D.C., and in the House by Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) on Thursday. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) also said this week that he would push to block the law.

The D.C. law legalized doctor-prescribed suicide under certain conditions, similar to other "death with dignity" laws passed or introduced in several states.

A physician must determine that the patient is terminally-ill, with six months or fewer to live, and inform the patient of other options if a request for a lethal prescription is made. They must refer the patient to a consulting doctor who independently verifies they are capable of making the decision, and who may refer the patient for counseling if he deems they are psychologically impaired. Two witnesses must also confirm that the patient is capable of making an informed decision.

After two oral requests, a 15-day period, a written request for a lethal prescription, and another 48-hour period, a doctor can prescribe a lethal dose of medication after offering the patient one more opportunity to stop the process and the patient refuses.

Aside from the troubling legalization of doctor-prescribed suicide, critics of the law have warned that it is open to serious abuses.

Patients can outlive terminal diagnoses, sometimes for years, though they may not be aware of this when they receive a terminal diagnosis. Someone deemed competent to choose to die may be still be suffering from mental disorders like depression, which may be a result of their terminal illness and may be treatable.

Also, a physician writing the prescription may not be the patient's long-time doctor who knows them well. There is no protection against a patient being coerced into ingesting the lethal medication. And one of the witnesses to their choice may be a financial beneficiary of their death.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington spoke out strongly against the bill along with other Catholic leaders in the city.

"It cannot be denied that there are hardships in life, some of which seem to overwhelm us. Whether experienced late in life, in a physical illness or a bout of mental depression, or in a crisis pregnancy, the human condition is for us all beset with trials and tribulations," he stated.

"A truly compassionate and merciful response to the sick and vulnerable is not to confirm these impulses by offering a lethal drug. Whether it is a terminally ill person or a young person suffering from depression, our response should be to draw them away from the edge, to help the vulnerable among us – regardless of their condition or circumstances – with genuine compassion and give them hope."

Rep. Wenstrup stated that "as a physician of over 25 years, access to quality healthcare for every American is a concern that is close to my heart."

"By authorizing doctors to violate the Hippocratic Oath of 'do no harm,' physician-assisted suicide undermines a key safeguard that protects our nation's most vulnerable citizens and ensures our loved ones receive the best medical care when they need it most," he said.

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He echoed concerns of some of the city's African-American residents who thought the law would discriminate against the poor, minorities, and the elderly. They, more than others, might not be able to afford the health care needed to fight terminal illnesses or could be pressured into obtaining a lethal prescription rather than fight a terminal illness.

 "Under this new law, if D.C. residents are not able to pay for health care out of pocket, they may find their options severely limited when facing a new diagnosis, suffering from a chronic illness, facing a disability, or struggling with mental illness," Wenstrup said.

Doctor-prescribed suicide is now legal in the District of Columbia and six states: Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Montana, California, and Colorado.

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