Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The D.C. Council’s Health and Human Services Committee has moved forward a controversial bill that would permit certain terminally ill patients to end their lives in advance of natural death more than a year and a half after it was originally proposed.

On Wednesday, three of the committee’s five members voted in the affirmative for the “Death with Dignity Act,” modeled off an Oregon law that has been in effect for almost two decades. As drafted, the bill would let adult patients of sound mind who have life expectancies of less than six months remaining access medication that would facilitate death, so long as they have consulted with a physician and made both oral and written requests for such a prescription. The measure contains language protecting medical professionals from liability as well as opt-out provisions.

The bill now moves to the full Council, which is set to consider it on Oct. 18, according to Ward 7 Councilmember and health chair Yvette Alexander. If it’s ultimately approved and signed into law, the District would join Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and California as jurisdictions that have legalized assisted death. During her remarks in opposition to the measure, Alexander listed 22 other states where something similar failed to pass muster.

In committee, the proposal saw less debate than individual members’ scripted remarks. Still, the upvote came as a victory for right-to-die advocates.

“As a matter of basic principle, I believe that adults should be able to make choices about their own lives and bodies,” said At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who voted for the measure after noting several concerns with the bill like the possibility of coercion and arbitrary insurance coverage. “It is hard for me to imagine telling a person in the final moments of their life that they must continue to fight if they desire to end things on their own terms.”

Alexander takes issue with the present bill’s “lack of oversight” during the administration of a lethal drug, the “difficulty of predicting” the final window of a person’s life, and pressure on doctors to “engage in behavior in contraction with the Hippocratic Oath.” She added that D.C. should hold a ballot initiative on assisted death rather than act through legislation: “Our residents should be able to decide whether this option should be available.”

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who also voted against the bill, said physicians’ concerns caused her to oppose the measure as well because “those with the least access to healthcare are the most likely to get a late-stage diagnosis” and may think death their best option.

For Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May, the decision came down to equity. “Many of the residents I represent wouldn’t have the option to move to Oregon” or a similar state if they were to choose to die, May said. “This is not suicide. This is not a suicide bill.”

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who introduced the legislation, said she did so to “give dying patients greater choice and control over their final moments.” She pointed out that about one-third of the patients who are eligible for Oregon’s assisted-death program and go through the medical consultation process take the medication.

“We’re not rushing headlong into the abyss,” she said. “What this bill will do is give dying patients agency and respect.”