Physician-assisted suicide officially has a new home in the wake of congressional inaction, and its proponents are pushing more jurisdictions to legalize the lethal practice.
The District of Columbia’s Death With Dignity Act went into effect Feb. 18 when Congress failed to overturn the measure by the deadline. The Senate and House of Representatives have 30 days after the district approves legislation to rescind it under their authority to review D.C. actions. A disapproval resolution passed by both chambers also must be signed by the president.
With their victory in America’s capital, advocates are seeking to extend assisted suicide’s reach beyond the six states where it is already legal. Nearly half of the state legislatures are considering legalization measures in their current sessions.
Southern Baptist public policy specialist Travis Wussow acknowledged the challenge ahead.
“We have work to do to ensure our elected officials understand that assisting suicide is inconsistent with a pro-life ethic and a compassionate society,” said Wussow, general counsel and vice president for public policy of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
The ERLC is “disappointed Congress failed to respond to D.C.’s physician-assisted suicide ordinance,” he told Baptist Press (BP) in written comments. “For physicians to actively participate in the death of a patient is contrary to the healer role of a physician.”
The district measure – passed by the D.C. Council in November and signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in December – authorizes doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to people who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses and supposedly have less than six months to live. Though a House committee forwarded a disapproval resolution Feb. 13, the proposal received no vote from the full House or the Senate by the deadline four days later.
Southern Baptist bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell said Congress’ failure to act “seems to be either a sad dereliction of duty or a cowardly strategy to pass a law by neglect.”
The inaction “is eerily similar” to assisted suicide, said Mitchell, provost and professor of moral philosophy at Union University, in written remarks for BP. “Assisted suicide is either a dereliction of duty by physicians who should be attending to patients as persons or an example of negligence in not treating the real needs of their patients.
“Death by assisted suicide is anything but dignity in dying,” said Mitchell, also editor of the journal Ethics & Medicine.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio – sponsor of the House disapproval resolution – told BP in a written statement, “[O]ur commitment to protecting patients from the dangers of this deeply flawed legislation remains unchanged.”
Along with other members, Wenstrup said he would continue efforts to educate Congress and citizens about “our concerns over the consequences of legalizing physician-assisted suicide here in the nation’s capital and across the country. Americans deserve better.”
Upon introducing a companion bill in January, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said D.C. has “not addressed the legality of their ability to create this law,” citing a 1997 federal measure that bars the use of federal funds – including those for D.C. – for reasons related to assisted suicide.
Congressional foes of assisted suicide apparently hope to utilize another strategy in another attempt to ify the D.C. law. Assisted suicide advocates believe members of Congress will seek to deny the funding required to implement the measure.
“[W]hile it is true that opponents want to defund and overturn the law, no funding is required for the law to go into effect,” said Jessica Grennan, national director of political affairs and advocacy, for Compassion and Choices. “We urge anyone who is eligible and considering this option to make the request of their doctor right away, since we cannot predict whether or when this right may be stripped away by Congress.”
In 22 states, legislators have introduced – or are expected to introduce – in their current sessions bills legalizing assisted suicide, according to the Death With Dignity National Center. Proposals in Hawaii and New Mexico already have received committee approval. In addition to D.C., assisted suicide is also legal in California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
Assisted suicide is not just potentially abusive, but it already is being used in place of health care, foes say. Some Americans with terminal illnesses have reported Medicaid and/or their insurance companies have informed them they will pay for a lethal prescription but not drugs to treat their afflictions.
Messengers to the 2015 Southern Baptist Convention meeting adopted a resolution affirming “the dignity and sanctity of human life at all stages of development, from conception to natural death.” The resolution called on churches and Christians “to care for the elderly among us, to show them honor and dignity, and to prayerfully support and counsel those who are providing end-of-life care for the aged, the terminally ill, and the chronically infirmed.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)