Congress can — and should — repeal DC's assisted suicide law
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The District of Columbia recently became the seventh “suicide” jurisdiction in the country when the D.C. council passed the Death with Dignity Act in February. No one has yet to kill themselves under the law using a massive, prescribed dose of sedatives, and it may be that the law will be blocked by Congress before anyone has the chance.

As a physician, it is no surprise to me that Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), the congressman spearheading the effort to repeal D.C.’s assisted suicide law, is a doctor. Some of the most ardent opponents of physician-prescribed suicide are doctors and nurses with plenty of experience accompanying patients through the shock of a terminal diagnosis and the struggle of the last months of life. Becoming an agent of your own patient’s death is directly at odds with a vocation designed to prolong and enhance lives.

Harris practiced obstetric anesthesiology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for over three decades. An obstetric anesthesiologist is the doctor who comes in at 3 a.m. to put in the epidural for the laboring woman being rushed to an emergency C-section because her baby is in mortal distress.

Such physicians are very much at the life-affirming apex of medicine, up to their elbows in the human reality of pain and the struggle to survive. They understand modern medicine’s ability to mitigate suffering and save lives.  

As an anesthesiologist, he must be very aware of the great irony surrounding assisted suicide and euthanasia: Human beings are legalizing the hastening of their deaths and the deaths of their loved ones just when, for the first time in history, drugs to control pain and even to relieve depression are easily available and extremely effective.

Doctors know that if a terminal patient is hurting so badly that death becomes preferable, what that patient needs is better pain control, not help killing himself. Doctors also know that most people who choose suicide do so because they are sad and lonely or don’t wish to be a burden on their families, not because of unbearable physical pain.  

Trends documented in Oregon and Washington indicate that the most likely candidates for suicide are isolated, dependent, and chronically-ill seniors. The compassionate solution for the problem is hospice care, a rapidly growing field staffed by caring doctors and nurses who help their patients face the inevitable with dignity and grace.

Harris and the other members of the Appropriations Committee who seek to repeal the D.C. suicide law must also be mindful of the people in the District who fought hardest against the legislation: the disabled and marginalized, and of course, their advocates.  

One disability advocacy group published a resolution opposing the measure which eloquently explains why the disabled have mobilized against the institutionalization of suicide. They point out that the disabled and people with chronic illnesses are at great risk of despair, abuse, and discrimination in our increasingly rationed and managed health care system.

The proposed legal safeguards around assisted suicide, they insist, “will not protect people with disabilities from abuse.” In other words, when we create a “right to die,” very soon we will find a “duty to die,” felt first by vulnerable people who fear being a burden on their families and living in a society which devalues them.

By opposing the D.C. law, Dr. Harris makes himself an ally to the African Americans in the District who oppose assisted suicide. A Pew poll in 2013 found that 65 percent of African Americans and Latinos opposed these measures versus 42 percent of whites. Aware that lower income levels can mean less access to treatment, preventive care, and even palliative care, minorities worry that suicide will be offered to them instead of more expensive end-of-life options.

It’s hard to argue against that kind of logic.

Patricia King, a Georgetown Law School professor who writes about the racial aspects of suicide and euthanasia, said, “Historically, African Americans have not had a lot of control over their bodies, and I don’t think offering them assisted suicide is going to make them feel more autonomous.”

Institutionalizing suicide in our nation’s capital would send a destructive signal to the rest of the country. It would be better if Dr. Harris succeeds and Americans are reminded that strong and compassionate communities respond to the suffering and vulnerable with attention and care, not with assistance to kill themselves.

Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is a policy advisor for The Catholic Association, which is dedicated to being a faithful Catholic voice in the public square..


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.