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…