DC’s Death with Dignity Law Under Threat

The right for a terminally ill individual to end their own life peacefully has been historically supported by humanists and the nonreligious community at large. In fact, the second Humanist Manifesto of 1973 explicitly endorses this right.

This issue enjoys overwhelming support not just from the secular community but also the majority of Americans. Seven-in-ten Americans support the right to doctor-assisted suicide, and what’s particularly telling is that a majority of physicians support aid in dying.

Crusaders opposed to giving the terminally ill the right to end their suffering, the Catholic Church in particular, have spent millions lobbying against aid-in-dying legislation and intentionally spread fear and misinformation to undermine support for the issue among the public and legislators. I was shocked to see how far they were willing to go; in one meeting with a staff member of the Washington, DC, city council, I discovered that our opposition was outright lying about the DC Death with Dignity Act, claiming that an individual with diabetes could qualify for aid in dying. It’s no surprise that the opposition had to resort to misinformation in order to oppose death with dignity legislation. Multiple studies investigating the impact of death with dignity bills have found no evidence of abuse or coercion, despite the scare tactics pushed by the Catholic Church and their allies.

Blocking access to aid in dying is a critical piece of the religious right’s so-called “pro-life” agenda. Similar to the issues of abortion and contraception, the right to end one’s life is seen as counter to their belief in the sanctity of life, a dogma they have enlisted lawmakers to elevate at the expense of our autonomy and religious freedom.

The Secular Coalition for America and its local chapter affiliate, the Secular Coalition for DC (SCDC), provided testimony at the bill’s hearing before the Health and Humans Services Committee last July, and the American Humanist Association joined us for the Compassion & Choices Lobby Day last September. Following over one year of lobbying in support of its passage, the DC Death with Dignity Act finally passed last November by a veto-proof majority (11-2) of the DC city council and was signed into law by Mayor Muriel Bowser the following month. This was a historic moment, marking the District of Colombia as the seventh jurisdiction to approve aid in dying after Colorado legalized it through a ballot initiative.

Unfortunately, this victory for terminally ill residents of the District is now at risk. Any act passed by the District of Columbia, since it does not enjoy the autonomy of a state, is subject to congressional review. Using their congressional powers to override the will of DC residents and their elected representatives on the District of Columbia Council, legislators in Congress have introduced two companion resolutions in the House (S.J. Res 27) and the Senate (S.J. Res. 4) that, if passed, would block the DC Death with Dignity Act from being implemented. The House resolution currently has nine co-sponsors and the Senate resolution has two.

Our fight for death with dignity helped secure its passage. Unless we rise to the occasion again, lawmakers on Capitol Hill will revoke this right. Secular Americans cannot stand by while members of Congress use their power to impose religious beliefs on the terminally-ill residents of Washington, DC.

You can take action now by sending a letter to your members of Congress urging them to oppose the resolutions to disapprove the DC Death with Dignity Act.