Kaiser Health News
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
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
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.
This story has been updated to reflect the end of Congress’s review period.
KHN’s coverage of end-of-life and serious illness issues is supported by The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
Thank You Ms Baily and KHN.