Blog Post

No Takers for Assisted Suicide in DC

A year after D.C. passed its controversial assisted suicide law, not a single patient has used it and almost no doctors have registered to assist patients who want to die.

According to the Washington Post, after nearly a year in force, no one has used the DC Death with Dignity law which was passed in the nation’s capital in February of 2017. Of the district’s 11,000 licensed physicians, only two have registered to help patients end their lives under the law, and just one hospital has cleared doctors to participate.

What’s the hangup?

Advocates of assisted suicide say it’s due to local health officials who created a cumbersome process that discourages doctors from participating.

“It’s been exceptionally, exceptionally slow,” said Kat West, national director of policy and programs for Compassion and Choices. “Especially in the first year, there’s usually a lot of interest in learning a lot about these laws. That, we think, has been really dampened and discouraged in D.C. because of these administrative rules.”

The rules she’s referring to are a requirement to include psychological evaluations for patients, registration for doctors who are willing to participate, and online training for patients and doctors. This is in addition to limiting use of the law to patients who have less than six months to live and who make two requests at least 15 days apart. Two witnesses must attest that the patient was of sound mind at the time of the request and the patient must take the medication without assistance.

Omega Silva, a retired DC physician and a volunteer for Compassion and Choices, says one of the reasons doctors aren’t signing up is because they don’t want to end up on a government registry, even one that doesn’t publicly disclose its members.

“They don’t want to be known as the doctor who gives out death prescriptions,” Silva said.

But the problem may be much deeper. After all, no local doctor testified in favor of the measure during debate before the DC Council last year, but several were willing to testify against it.

According to G. Kevin Donovan, director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center, who opposed the law, even those doctors who said to go ahead and pass the law don’t necessarily want to participate in it.

“They want other people to do it for other patients. It’s very difficult for a physician to directly send their patients to death because everything in their training is to try and do what’s good for their patients.”

Hospitals in the district are also reluctant to sign on. At the present time, only one hospital - Sibley Memorial Hospital -  has publicly say its doctors may participate.

MedStar Georgetown and Providence, which are affiliated with the Catholic Church, oppose it, the Post reports.

Kaiser Permanente and the rest of the MedStar network, are currently crafting policies for their doctors and Howard University Hospital has no policy at the present time. Several other hospitals did not respond to requests for comments.

Advocates of assisted suicide say the practice was slow to take root in other states where it was allowed with the first death in Vermont occurring nearly 18 months after the law took effect.

“It’s just going to be a slow process to adapt to a new way of thinking,” said Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center.

What is this new way of thinking? Learning how to embrace an unnatural death out of a misguided sense of compassion.

"Euthanasia is one of those tragedies caused by an ethic that claims to dictate who should live and who should die. Even if it is motivated by sentiments of a misconstrued compassion or of a misunderstood preservation of dignity, euthanasia actually eliminates the person instead of relieving the individual of suffering,” writes St. John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae.

"Even when not motivated by a selfish refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering, euthanasia must be called a false mercy, and indeed a disturbing ‘perversion’ of mercy. True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear. Moreover, the act of euthanasia appears all the more perverse if it is carried out by those, like relatives, who are supposed to treat a family member with patience and love, or by those, such as doctors, who by virtue of their specific profession are supposed to care for the sick person even in the most painful terminal stages."

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