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Politics & Policy

Assisted-Suicide Measure Takes Effect in Washington, D.C.

A new measure took effect on Monday in the nation’s capital, allowing doctors and pharmacies to provide terminally ill patients with life-ending medication. Washington, D.C.’s mayor signed the Death with Dignity Act last December, but the measure wasn’t implemented until this week.

City law now allows D.C. residents older than 18 to obtain a prescription for medications to end their lives, only if they are terminally ill and receive approval from a doctor. Participation is voluntary for doctors and pharmacies; not all medical professionals in the district are willing to prescribe and dispense lethal medications.

The law requires that patients make two requests to a doctor to end their life, 15 days apart. If their requests are granted, they must obtain the drugs and take their own life in a private place. With this law, D.C. joins the six states that already permit physician-assisted suicide: Oregon, Washington, Colorado, California, Montana, and Vermont.

But opponents of the law aren’t quite ready to give up: Just last week, the House Appropriations Committee advanced a measure to repeal it. The amendment in question was introduced by Andy Harris, a Maryland GOP congressman who is also a medical doctor.

While D.C.’s mayor insists that Congress shouldn’t be able to abolish the ordinance, Harris has pointed out correctly that the federal government has jurisdiction over the city. “We have the absolute ability to judge anything that the District of Columbia does that we think is bad, bad policy,” Harris said during debate. “This is really bad policy.”

In a statement last Friday, Harris summarized much of the opposition to assisted-suicide legislation. “New, stunning cures in medicine occur each and every day,” he said. “Encouraging patients to commit suicide deprives them of the opportunity to potentially be cured by new treatments that could ameliorate their condition and even add years to their lives, if not cure them completely.”

Harris’s statement also helps to partially explain why there are opponents of right-to-die laws on both sides of the political spectrum. It’s not as simple as “social conservatives” wishing to see their belief in the sanctity of life amplified by law, although that’s part of it.

Some believe that assisted-suicide laws will lead doctors to encourage patients to take advantage of lethal drugs rather than pursue new, experimental procedures that might succeed. Others argue that these laws make euthanasia more likely, as families might pressure relatives into choosing “death with dignity” rather than continuing to receive costly treatment. Many are concerned that individuals with depression or anxiety might turn to these drugs in a time of despair.

Given the lack of reporting on how many people have taken their own lives under these laws to this point, it has been difficult to conduct sound research on their effects. But at least one scholar has pieced together significant evidence that assisted-suicide laws tend to decrease the quality of palliative and end-of-life care, as well as increase overall suicide rates.

Hopefully none of these harmful effects will manifest themselves in D.C. as this new policy takes effect.



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