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Assisted Suicide Coming to Our Nation's Capital?


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A new push is underway to allow doctors to give deadly drugs to people who want to die in the nation's capital.

That hotly contested issue is being voted on this week by the Washington, D.C., Council. It's called the Death with Dignity Act.

If passed, the law would allow physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of oral medications to a patient suffering from a terminal medical condition.

According to the legislation the patient must:

  • Be an adult;
  • Only have six months or less to live;
  • Be mentally competent;
  • Demonstrate that suicide is their own decision, not one coerced by someone else;
  • Express their desire to die not once, but on two separate occasions.

Furthermore, the law would allow the prescribing physician to be absent at the time the patient takes the deadly drugs.

People in favor of the legislation say it allows patients to avoid end-of-life physical suffering and lets them exercise control over their own death.

Mickey MacIntyre, chief program officer at Compassion and Choices, told The Washington Post he supports the legislation after watching a dozen friends die during the 1980s AIDS epidemic.

"It's the personal experience, it's the heightened awareness in the popular culture," he said. "And the result of that is increased advocacy and the desire to make change."

Susan Farris, who also supports the bill, has Stage 4 breast cancer and considers it "a way out" for the terminally ill.

"I have no interest in dying. I'm fighting like hell to stay alive," Farris said. "However, I don't want to suffer."

Opponents of the bill have many concerns. D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said the measure "catapults the District into uncharted territory that we are not prepared to navigate."

Nesbitt said there are too many uncertainties built into the law, such as what type of medication would be used, and perhaps more importantly, what types of qualifications a doctor must possess to make the determination that a patient has less than six months to live.

She also questioned how the law would define a doctor's ability to assess whether the patient is mentally and emotionally competent enough to declare they want to die.

And Nesbitt pointed out that since a doctor is only required to give the deadly medications to the patient, and not actually witness the suicide, the patient can choose to die wherever they want, including public places, in a city that "attracts 19 million tourists a year."

At an emotional, hours-long hearing before the D.C. Council last month, citizen opponents expressed concern about abuses of the law, such as murder, family members motivated by an inheritance talking patients into suicide, incorrect diagnoses of terminal illness and other unintended consequences.

If the bill is passed, D.C. would join Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico, which have all legalized assisted suicide. Lawmakers in 24 other states are considering similar laws.

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