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Congress Signals Opposition to Assisted Suicide; Proponents Fear State Laws in Jeopardy

| February 19, 2017

Henry Moore's 'Reclining Figure' (1951) (Wikimedia Commons)

Henry Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure,’ 1951. (Wikimedia Commons)

Opponents of aid-in-dying laws are claiming a small victory. They won the attention of Congress this week in their battle to stop a growing movement that allows terminally ill patients to get doctors’ prescriptions to end their lives.


The Republican-led effort on Capitol Hill to overturn the District of Columbia’s aid-in-dying law appeared to have died Friday. But advocates worry the campaign will catalyze a broader effort to fully ban the practice, which is legal in six states and being considered in 22 more.

“The D.C. legislation has catapulted the issue of medical aid in dying onto the federal agenda at a time when Congress has the power to enact a ban on this end-of-life care option nationwide — even criminalizing the practice in the six states where this option is currently authorized,” warned Jessica Grennan, national director of political affairs and advocacy for Compassion & Choices, which supports right-to-die laws.

“If that happens, it will set the end-of-life care movement back to the last century,” Grennan said.

Despite the apparent defeat this week, both sides agree that the debate on Capitol Hill, featuring a Republican moral protest, could be only a taste of what’s to come.

In a vote that hewed closely to party lines, the Republican-controlled House Oversight Committee on Monday approved a bill that would knock down D.C.’s law, which won approval from the mayor and City Council in December. While D.C.’s law mirrors those passed in other states, Congress has unique power to intervene in D.C.’s affairs. Under the Home Rule Act of 1973, Congress has 30 legislative days to overturn any law D.C. passes.

“It’s of deep, personal moral conviction that I stand in opposition” to D.C.’s law, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who chairs the committee, in Monday’s hearing.

Chaffetz appears to have lost round one. Republicans in the House and Senate introduced joint resolutions attempting to block D.C.’s law, but the bills needed to pass the full House and Senate and gain President Donald Trump’s signature by Friday. Trump has declined to take a public stance on the matter.

Because Congress didn’t complete those steps this week, D.C.’s law successfully passes the congressional review period, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s non-voting representative, announced in a press release Friday.

But “our defense of the Death with Dignity Act is only beginning,” Norton said.

That’s because Chaffetz has threatened to launch a second attack on the bill this spring, when Congress approves D.C.’s budget. The Death With Dignity Act calls for spending $125,000 in local money to build a database tracking the assisted-dying program. The law is set to take effect Oct. 1, at the beginning of the fiscal year, but only after the money is approved, according to D.C. mayoral spokeswoman Susana Castillo.

Dr. David Stevens, CEO of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, which opposes medical aid in dying, said the Republicans’ effort to overturn D.C.’s law may still have broader impact.

“As representatives and senators become more educated about the dangers of physician-assisted suicide,” Stevens said, “I wouldn’t be surprised” if members of Congress introduce laws to “prohibit or at least more closely regulate” the practice.

If Congress passes such a law, the only hope for advocates such as Grennan “would be for the Supreme Court to intervene,” she said. But she noted that Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, a federal appellate judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, has published a book against aid-in-dying efforts. The book, she said, notes “the Supreme Court’s power to overturn the state medical aid-in-dying laws.”

Away from Capitol Hill, the aid-in-dying movement has gained steam: The practice is legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Colorado, California and Montana.

Energized by victories in California and Colorado last year, aid-in-dying supporters are pushing ahead to battlegrounds nationwide. So far this year, 21 states have introduced aid-in-dying legislation, according to Compassion & Choices. And in South Dakota, proponents are trying to get the practice approved through a ballot initiative.

Hawaii, Maryland and Maine appear the most likely to pass new legislation this year, said Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center, another national advocacy group.

But opponents have beaten back similar measures in many states in recent years. And in Alabama, South Dakota and New York, they have gone on the offensive, introducing bills to preemptively outlaw the practice or prohibit insurance from paying for the lethal drugs.

Chaffetz, who is leading the charge against D.C.’s law, has enraged Democrats and D.C. officials, who accuse him of overreaching his power by meddling in local affairs. But Chaffetz and fellow House Republicans at Monday’s vote said moral concerns trump local autonomy.

“Only God gets to decide” when a person’s life ends, declared Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Michigan Republican, during the debate.

Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who introduced the Senate resolution blocking the bill, also made a legal argument, citing a 1997 law passed under President Clinton that bans the use of federal money for physician-assisted death. Because of that law, Medicare and the Department of Veterans Affairs do not pay for the lethal drugs, so patients must pay out-of-pocket or use private or state-funded insurance. Lankford challenged D.C. to show that its assisted-dying program wouldn’t conflict with that law.

Advocates dismissed that argument. Sandeen, of the Death With Dignity National Center, said D.C.’s program will not use any federal money to help people die. She called the legal argument a “red herring effort,” aimed at distracting attention from politicians’ true reasons for trying to strike down D.C.’s law.

“I’d rather that they said, ‘For religious purposes, I disapprove of this law,’” she said.

–Melissa Bailey, Kaiser Health News

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3 Responses for “Congress Signals Opposition to Assisted Suicide; Proponents Fear State Laws in Jeopardy”

  1. Layla says:

    This country has lost its soul.

  2. Bradley Williams says:

    ?What else haven’t they told you for convenience of their promotion?
    Correction please: Here is the rest of the story.
    Your source has done you a disservice. The promoters of assisted suicide have worn out their thesaurus attempting to imply that it is legal in Montana. Assisted suicide is a homicide in Montana. Our MT Supreme Court did ruled that if a doctor is charged with a homicide they might have a potential defense based on consent. The MT Supreme Court acknowledged it is a homicide in the ruling.

    The Court did not address civil liabilities and they vacated the lower court’s claim that it was a constitutional right. Unlike Oregon no one in Montana has immunity from civil or criminal prosecution, death certificates are not legally falsified and investigations are not prohibited like in OR, WA and CA. Does that sound legal to you? Does that sound shielded to you?

    Perhaps the promoters are frustrated that even though they were the largest lobbying spender in Montana their Oregon model legalizing assisted suicide bills have been rejected in Montana in 2011, 2013 and 2015. No show in 2017.

    Amending Colorado’s Prop 106 is sorely needed (and OR,WA,CA). The initiative was bought for $8,000,000 of deception. Even as they proclaimed that the poison must be self administered they did not provide for an ordinary witness. The difference is that without a witness it allows forced euthanasia but with a witness they would up hold individual choice.

    Amendments would include requiring a witness to the self administration, restore the illegality of falsifying the death certificate require the posting of the poison applied in the medical record for the sake of good stewardship for future studies, register organ/tissue trafficking, reveal commissions and memorials paid to the corporate facilitators and keep all records for transparent public safety policy.
    Bradley Williams
    President
    MTaas org

  3. Katherine Pettus says:

    It is important to include information about the availability and accessibility of palliative care in this debate. Good palliative care can mitigate, although not eliminate, calls for assisted dying. In the absence of good palliative care, or public understanding of what PC is and where it is available to them, assisted dying (unfortunately) is a rational choice for both patients and policymakers alike. I hope that palliative care organisations will use this opportunity to testify in hearings on this bill to advocate for more funding, training, and availability.

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