More than a year after a controversial end-of-life law went into effect in the District of Columbia, advocacy groups say they are now seeing a higher public response to its efforts to ensure city residents know the law exists.
How many people have used the law will become clearer in an upcoming February report. As of last April, no patient had yet used the law, according news accounts.
The Death with Dignity Act allows mentally capable, terminally ill adults with six months to live to request lethal doses of prescription medication so they can die peacefully and comfortably in their homes or any place where they have been granted permission to do so.
One of the law’s main proponents, Compassion & Choices, has helped the District of Columbia Council advocate for the legislation and educate Washington residents about the new option for patients with terminal illnesses.
The administrative side of the end-of-life process apparently has dissuaded physicians, pharmacists and patients from using the law, but local public service announcements have helped spike interest and attention, Sean Crowley, spokesman for Compassion & Choices, told Capital News Service in an interview.
His group declined to say how many doctors in the District registered to use the law, as it did not have access to such records. But as of last April, only two doctors among the roughly 11,000 doctors in the city had registered to use the law and just one hospital had approved doctors for the practice, according to The Washington Post.
The District of Columbia Department of Health is set to release a detailed report in February on how many patients have utilized lethal drugs and how many physicians have administered them. But to date, no patients have volunteered to go public with their stories.
During September, Compassion & Choices distributed television public service announcements promoting the end-of-life law, featuring prominent Washingtonians Diane Rehm, a former WAMU radio show host, and Dr. Omega Silva, a retired physician.
The announcements, which began Labor Day weekend, aired on various Comcast stations. Compassion & Choices reported that there were 229 visits to the group’s page during September, compared to only 56 for the same month a year ago – a 400 percent increase.
In addition to the District, six states have end-of-life, or physician-assisted dying laws: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, according to the nonprofit Death with Dignity National Center, based in Portland, Oregon.
Efforts to pass a similar law in Maryland have been unsuccessful.
Since the District’s end-of-life bill was introduced in 2015, organizations such as Right to Life and conservatives in Congress have opposed it and tried to defund it.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, introduced an amendment in 2017 to defund and repeal the law. The amendment failed to pass the House Appropriations Committee.
Harris, a physician, criticized what he called “the so-called Death With Dignity Act,” saying “most people don’t associate suicide with dignity in any way shape or form.”
“It sends a strong message that regardless of the many types of disease you might have and the many types of treatment that may be available, there is one common pathway that in this case the District would say is perfectly acceptable, it is legal,” he said. “It’s actually to go to a physician and ask if they can participate in your suicide. That doesn’t lead to more choice – that leads to one choice.”
The House will be controlled by the Democrats next month, making the prospects for repealing the District bill more remote.
In any case, Crowley said that “lawmakers from outside the District should not dictate to district lawmakers what laws they should pass for their local constituents.”
“Other states would never allow lawmakers from outside their state dictate what their states can do,” he said. “Why should they be allowed to dictate in D.C.?”
Since its founding as the seat of the federal government, the District of Columbia has not had voting representation in Congress, although it has some limited autonomy. Even so, Congress has the power to review and repeal District laws.
“That Congress thinks it should substitute its judgment for the judgment of the residents of the District of Columbia is odious enough,” said Councilmember Mary Cheh, who sponsored the end-of-life bill. “That it would presume to substitute its judgment for the judgment of people who are dying is unconscionable. Such an action is fundamentally undemocratic and it should not stand.”
By Morgan Caplan