Congress Attacks D.C. Death with Dignity Law

The House Appropriations Committee has approved a measure repealing the bill

After failing to block the enactment of a Washington, D.C. law that legalized medical aid in dying earlier this year, the House Appropriations Committee recently succeeded in attaching a measure to repeal the law to a 2018 spending bill. The amendment was introduced by Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, a Republican, who justified the measure with the statement, “We have the absolute ability to judge anything that the District of Columbia does that is bad, bad policy.”

Woman protesting repeal of D.C. Death with Dignity Act

A woman protests the measure repealing the D.C. Death with Dignity Act

The full House and Senate must also vote to approve the measure before it can go to President Trump for signature. According to Compassion & Choices, Trump has gone on record as opposing the use of federal or local funds to implement the D.C. medical aid in dying law.

About the Law

The D.C. Death with Dignity Act passed the D.C. Council by a vote of 11-2 last year after a year-long period of intense debate. It was signed into law by Mayor Muriel Bowser on Dec. 20, 2016. Like Death with Dignity laws in other states, the law permits mentally competent adults who have been told by their doctor that they have six months or less to live to obtain a prescription for lethal medication. The patient can choose to self-administer the medication if his or her suffering becomes unbearable.

The D.C. Death with Dignity Act went into effect on July 17, 2017. However, like all legislation enacted in the District of Columbia, it was subject to a 30-day Congressional review period during which either the House or Senate could pass a “disapproval resolution” to repeal the law. Members of the House Appropriations Committee passed the amendment on July 13 by a vote of 24-28, mostly along party lines. Two Republicans, Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington, joined Democrats in opposing it.

Harris’ proposal is the most recent in a long list of attempts by Congress to limit the authority of the D.C. Council, which was granted limited autonomy in 1973.

Mayor Bowser strongly condemned the measure, stating,

None of the members opposing our law were elected to represent our residents. This is not a federal issue. This is a local issue. Members of Congress who are interfering with our laws must begin to realize what they are really doing: attempting to sidestep the democratic process to impose their personal beliefs on 681,000 Washingtonians.”

Inaccurate Arguments

Rep. Andy Harris standing in front of Capitol

Rep. Andy Harris, a physician, spearheaded the repeal of the D.C. law

When arguing before the committee in favor of the measure, Rep. Harris, who is an anesthesiologist, made a number of factually inaccurate statements, both about the D.C. law and medical aid in dying laws throughout the United States. For example, he stated that “25 percent” of patients who take advantage of medical aid in dying are clinically depressed. But he presented no statistical evidence to back up that claim. Further, he ignored the fact that all medical aid in dying laws contain safeguards to ensure that doctors screen patients for mental illness before granting their request.

Rep. Harris also claimed that people from all over the United States could come to Washington to get a “lethal injection” if the D.C. Death with Dignity Law were allowed to stand. This statement was patently untrue, since [a] anyone who wishes to take advantage of the law must be a citizen of the District of Columbia and [b] the law states that the prescription for lethal medication must be an oral drug that the patient takes himself. The law specifically prohibits lethal injection by a physician or anyone else.

Subverting the Public Will

According to the most recent Gallup poll on attitudes towards medical aid in dying, 73 percent of Americans support the notion that competent adults should have the option of ending their lives if they are terminally ill. As of September 2017, five states and the District of Columbia allow medical aid in dying, and several others are considering such legislation or attempting to decide the issue in the courts. All of these laws could come under attack if the Harris measure is allowed to proceed, potentially taking away the right to make informed end-of-life decisions from millions of Americans.

If you support medical aid in dying, we at SevenPonds urge you to call your legislators and urge them to oppose the Harris amendment repealing the D.C. Death with Dignity Act. You can find their contact information on the website GovTrack by adding your address into the search form. Or, if you prefer, you can provide feedback to your representatives by adding your name and contact information to the letter protesting the Harris amendment on the Compassion & Choices website.

If you would like to learn more about medical aid in dying, check out our interview with Sarah Hooper about the passage of the California End of Life Options Act. 

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