Medical professionals, attorneys and disabilities rights advocates have united in opposition to a proposal that would legalize assisted suicide in Washington, D.C., warning that it preys on the most vulnerable. “Allowing anyone, especially doctors to kill, or help kill a person is too dangerous to patients, doctors, the health care system, and society,” Dr. Karl Benzio of the Lighthouse Network said during a hearing on the proposed “Death with Dignity Act” of 2015. Dr. Benzio revealed that he has helped numerous suicidal patients suffering from severe emotional trauma, including those in war-torn areas like Iraq. The “real solution is providing proper expertise and true compassion,” he said, not a lethal prescription. Patients can recover from their desire to die, he insisted. “In many life conditions, we leave at intermission,” he said, “and miss the star’s great comeback.” Dr. Benzio was one of numerous witnesses who testified July 10 before the city’s Committee on Health and Human Services on the proposed “Death with Dignity Act,” which would allow persons with terminal diagnoses to obtain lethal prescriptions from doctors. Certain conditions would be required under the legislative proposal. Patients must make a written request witnessed by two parties, one of whom is a “disinterested” party — not the person’s family or beneficiary. Additionally, another physician must ensure that the patient is suffering from a terminal illness and is mentally competent to make the decision. However, the doctor would only need to “recommend” that the patient notify their “next of kin” of their decision. A patient would have to seek mental health counseling only if a physician deems it appropriate. Patients would be eligible to receive the lethal prescription if the “attending physician” determines that they are mentally competent to make the decision, and are not suffering from a psychological disorder. These conditions have raised red flags among doctors, disability rights groups and pro-life organizations, who argue that the bill targets the vulnerable and promotes suicide as an accessible solution to suffering in life. If leaders and lawmakers devalue life with proposed laws like this, Dr. Benzio said in his testimony, “why are we surprised” when youth “do the same” in devaluing their own lives and the lives of others. Other witnesses cautioned that the physicians might not know their patients well at all. Advocacy organizations in favor of physician-assisted suicide have been known to simply direct patients to doctors who will honor their requests, said Molly Greenberg of the National Council on Independent Living, delivering the testimony of the organization’s executive director Kelly Buckland. There is also a fear that patients may be vulnerable to be coercion. The bill contains no actual requirement that they be evaluated by a psychiatrist or psychologist for mental health disorders like depression that might cloud their judgment. A doctor may recommend them to such a specialist, but he is not required to do so. The D.C. Department of Health’s Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt admitted as much in her testimony — there is no such requirement that a physician be qualified to judge the mental competency of the patient. She did not endorse or oppose the bill but warned of its weighty consequences. Also, only one of the two witnesses required for the written request of lethal medication is required to be a “disinterested” witness, said Dr. Lucia Silecchia, a law professor at The Catholic University of America testifying in a strictly personal capacity as a D.C. resident. In contrast, she said, “traditionally, wills have required multiple disinterested witnesses.” Seattle-based attorney Margaret Dore further argued that the bill leaves open the possibility of sick persons to die without their own consent. If a patient obtains a lethal prescription, there is “no oversight” for when they take the dose, making it possible that another person could administer the lethal dose while the patient is asleep or incapacitated, she said. Persons who stand to benefit from the patient’s death may try to “hasten” it, she warned. The pills used for such a procedure are water and alcohol soluble, and could also switch hands, either intentionally or unintentionally, without regulation. The bill also ignores the fact that terminal diagnoses given by doctors can sometimes be wrong, witnesses said, with examples of patients possibly living for years after they receive a six-month terminal diagnosis. It is “very difficult for a physician to accurately predict” the six-month window for a terminal illness, said Dr. Nesbitt. “We can all agree that there are worse things in life than death,” she said, while noting that D.C. is entering “unchartered territory” by considering physician-assisted suicide. “The organized medical community is opposed to physician-assisted suicide,” she told the city council. The American Medical Association has consistently opposed it, she added, insisting that doctors need to ensure their patients receive care and support rather than a lethal dose of medication. Their opinion has not changed for over 20 years. Other national organizations opposing the practice include the American Nurses Association, the National Council on Disability, and the National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization, which stated in 2005 that “effective therapies are now available to assure relief from almost all forms of distress during the terminal phase of an illness without purposefully hastening death as the means to that end.” Oregon, Vermont, and Washington have all legalized physician-assisted suicide, while judicial rulings have allowed the practice in Montana and in one New Mexico county. Measures to legalize the practice have failed in other states, including Maryland, Colorado, California, and Maine.
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