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Washington, D.C., Death With Dignity Act Takes Effect

DC storyThe District of Columbia’s medical aid-in-dying bill, the D.C. Death with Dignity Act, took effect Feb. 18 when opponents failed to get the support necessary in Congress to stop the bill from becoming law.

The Death with Dignity Act was transmitted by the D.C. Council to the House and Senate on Jan. 6 for a 30-legislative-day review period under the Home Rule Act. On February 13, Compassion & Choices blasted the House Oversight and Government Reform (OGR) Committee for voting 22-14 to advance a disapproval resolution, H.J. Res. 27, to overturn the D.C. Death with Dignity Act.

“It is a dangerous path for Congress to interfere with the democratic process in setting local policy in the District of Columbia, and it clearly contradicts the D.C. Home Rule Act’s Statement of Purposes,” said Compassion & Choices National Director of Political Affairs and Advocacy Jessica Grennan. H.J. Res 27 stalled without a floor vote in either House.

Though Congress could still vote to overturn the law or try to defund it, overriding D.C.’s laws becomes more difficult after they go into effect. Grennan explained: “The advocacy of D.C. residents and local officials is what won this victory. Democracy conquered the personal mindsets of paternalistic politicians whose opinions should not get in the way of people getting the medical relief they want and need.

“We will continue to monitor Congress for attacks on D.C. or any of the six other states where medical aid in dying is authorized. Terminally ill patients can now legally get medical aid in dying in the District of Columbia. Doctors may now prescribe appropriate medications under the law without fear of prosecution.”

D.C. residents support medical aid in dying by a 2-1 margin, according to a July 2015 Lake Research poll. D.C. residents’ elected officials, the D.C. Council, overwhelmingly voted to pass the legislation by an 11-2 margin, and yet the OGR Committee proceeded to pass the resolution after refusing to hold a single hearing to listen to their perspectives.

We do remain concerned, however, not just about the stability of D.C.’s law but all similar laws around the country. Despite strong and growing public demand for fuller end-of-life options throughout America, the D.C. legislation has catapulted the issue of medical aid in dying onto the federal agenda at a time when a hostile Congress has the power to enact a congressional ban on aid in dying nationwide — even criminalizing it in states that have long authorized it. Congressman Jason Chaffetz, who moved the legislation to overturn D.C.’s law, has been asked to introduce legislation that would invalidate all states’ ability to authorize the practice. Our only hope after that would lie with the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the odds there are stacked against us. President Trump has nominated Neil Gorsuch, a federal judge in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, who authored and published a book detailing his opposition to medical aid in dying and offering specific cases that could result in the invalidation of state medical aid in dying laws. Fighting this egregious dismissal of hard-won citizens’ rights and personal autonomy is of paramount importance — find out how you can help.