DC City Council Considers Death with Dignity Legislation

This week I attended a series of meetings with DC city council members as part of a bipartisan and interfaith effort to promote the Death With Dignity Act of 2015. The bill was introduced by Councilmember Mary Cheh and would allow patients with a terminal illness and an estimated six months or less to live to end their lives with medication.

Attending these meetings were faith leaders from various religious traditions, nontheistic activists, medical practitioners, and those whose relatives had utilized compassionate choice laws in states that have made such practices legal.

This legislation builds upon efforts in states like Oregon and Washington, which already have laws on the books to allow compassionate choice at the end of a person’s life. The bill proposes a commonsense approach to the topic of death with dignity, requiring patients who wish to receive this medicine to meet several criteria, including:

  1. A terminal prognosis that estimates the patient has only six months or less to live. This prognosis must be made by an attending physician and confirmed by a different consulting physician.
  2. Proof that the individual requesting this medication is of sound mind and under no coercion.
  3. The patient must make several requests for the medicine, including:
    • Two oral requests, separated by at least fifteen days, to an attending physician.
    • A written request, signed and dated by the patient, to the attending physician before the patient makes the second oral request and at least 48 hours before a covered medication may be prescribed or dispensed. This request must be witnessed by two individuals, who, in the presence of the patient, attest to the best of their knowledge and belief that the patient is capable, acting voluntarily, and is not being unduly influenced to sign the request.

If all of these criteria are met, the patient must themselves administer the medicine, so that no concerns over coercion will be raised.

To many of the attendees of these meetings, compassionate choice mirrors the debate on the right to abortion, in that this issue revolves around personal choice and individual autonomy. And while many of the advocates of this legislation wouldn’t choose to use the procedure themselves, either for personal or religious reasons, they are fighting to make sure that those who wish to undertake the procedure have the option to do so.

This issue is sure to be a contentious one to people of all faiths, and for humanists and other nontheists as well who believe that this life is the only life we get. But as I noted in a previous article on this topic, “while humanists recognize that we only have one life to live, we also recognize that living in unbearable pain can be a horrible existence and that relief from this pain can be the greatest gift we can give to our loved ones.”

The legislation is scheduled to be marked up by the DC City Council in October, after which it will be voted on by the entire council. Humanists and DC residents who are interested in helping to ensure this bill becomes law or who simply wish to find out more about the issue should visit www.compassionandchoices.org.