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Next week, physician-assisted suicide (PAS) could become legal in our nation’s capital, bringing with it a host of concerns for the wellbeing of the elderly and disabled in Washington, D.C. However, a broad coalition of groups, individuals, and institutions is working to keep that from happening.

The measure was authored and introduced by Councilmember Mary Cheh in January 2015 and will go to a final vote in the following weeks. Titled the “D.C. Death with Dignity Act,” B21-38 would establish “procedures and safeguards regarding the request for and dispensation of covered medications to qualified patients who are terminally ill and wish to die in a humane and dignified manner.”

Basically, this would allow doctors to interpret the Hippocratic Oath to allow end-of-life options for terminally ill patients. The council’s Committee on Health and Human Services (of which Cheh is a member) passed the act on Oct. 5 by a 3-2 vote, leaving the entire D.C. Council to decide the bill’s fate in the coming weeks.

The first of two votes by the 13-member council is currently scheduled for Oct. 18, while the second is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 1, according to The Washington Post. (The Post has officially endorsed the bill.)

The main concern of objectors to the Death with Dignity Act is the effect that it will have on the most vulnerable of the population — the elderly and disabled.

"The Committee on Health and Human Services acknowledged that legislation legalizing assisted suicide lacks safeguards posing a grave threat to our poor, sick, disabled, and vulnerable brothers and sisters especially those lacking health insurance or quality health care,” Michael Scott, director of the D.C. Catholic Conference, told the Catholic Standard last week.

David Grosso, at-large Council member, argued it wasn’t his place to decide the life of another.

“As a matter of basic principle, I believe that adults should be able to make choices about their own lives and bodies,” Grosso said during deliberations, eventually voting in favor of the act. “It is hard for me to imagine telling a person in the final months of her life that she must continue to fight if she prefers to end things on her own terms.”

Under the proposed ordinance, physicians would be permitted to prescribe lethal doses of medicine to adult patients with six months or fewer to live to die in their sleep at a time and place of their choosing. A study published by the Heritage Foundation last spring found the practice to be a “violation of the Hippocratic Oath,” arguing that it operates on the premise that “some lives are unworthy.”

Addressing assisted-suicide in a recent letter to the faithful, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington called the practice part of a “new mentality” that “says that human life is not a gift but rather our own possession over which we have final and absolute power and authority.”

“In its current form this new politically correct morality says that human life has no unique dignity in itself. So if someone has certain medical conditions or disabilities they can be considered better off dead.”

Ashley McGuire, senior fellow at the Catholic Association, has testified against the measure before the D.C. Council and written extensively on the controversy.

“You could hardly walk through the room because there were so many wheelchairs,” as members of the disabled community showed up to fight the bill, McGuire recalled to Conservative Review in a phone interview. “They know that society already views them as disposable, and that assisted suicide only gives them more cover to do that.”

In response to claims that opponents of physician-assisted suicide are simply prolonging the suffering of others, McGuire called the bill’s title “Orwellian” and contended that suicide was anything but “death with dignity.”

“When I think about that phrase, what I think about are the Little Sisters of the Poor — and what they provide is death with dignity,” she said, referring to the order of religious sisters who specialize in providing care to the poor and dying. “I think you have a right to be treated with human dignity until your very last breath. But there’s nothing dignified, and it certainly can’t be called medical care, to approach someone suffering and say ‘I’ll help you kill yourself.’”

McGuire referenced the 2008 case of Barbara Wagner, a 64-year-old cancer patient in Oregon who was told by her insurance company that they wouldn’t cover her lung cancer medication. Instead, Oregon Health Plan offered to pay for the $50 drugs necessary in a doctor-prescribed death.

While Wagner eventually had her medication covered for a year by the drug company, and died fighting her disease on her terms, that is the exact fear objectors have over B21-38.

Anne Sommers, a board member of Not Dead Yet, a grassroots disability rights group, told Conservative Review that “While the District may be small in population, its vulnerable populations are no less important or deserving of our fight against such dangerous and bad public policy.”

Sommers went on to explain that while the law has nominal safeguards in place, the safeguard protections for vulnerable patients are “hollow and unenforceable” against a host of perverse incentives for insurers and providers when pushing suicide “will always be the cheapest ‘health care’ option.”

 “If assisted suicide is legal in the District, some people’s lives will be ended without their consent, through mistakes and abuse,” she added. “No safeguards have ever been enacted or even proposed that can prevent this outcome, which can never be undone.”


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Editor’s note: Ashley McGuire’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this piece. CR apologizes for the error.

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Nate Madden is a Staff Writer for Conservative Review, focusing on religious freedom, jihadism, and the judiciary. He previously served as the Director of Policy Relations for the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. A Publius Fellow, John Jay Fellow, Citadel Parliamentary Fellow and National Journalism Center alumnus, Nate’s writing has previously appeared in several religious and news publications. Follow him @NateMadden_IV.

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