The DC Death with Dignity Act of 2015 was introduced by Councilmember Mary Cheh on Jan. 4, 2015, in the Health and Human Services (HHS) Committee. Compassion & Choices worked with Cheh and her staff to strategize and secure votes for the bill including identifying and lifting the voices of terminally ill supporters who wanted the option. In Washington, DC, Mary Klein and Dr. Omega Silva were the primary faces of the campaign.
The bill passed out of the Health and Human Services committee on October 5, 2016, and ultimately passed two Council of the Whole votes (on November 1, 2016 and November 15, 2016) with a 11-2 vote and a veto-proof margin. In the final Council of the Whole vote, Compassion & Choices staff and volunteers came out in support of the bill, and Councilmember Cheh thanked C&C for our work on the ground. On December 20, 2016 Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser signing the D.C. Death with Dignity Act.
This marked the start of an ongoing battle with Congress to keep the DC Death with Dignity Act in effect. Because Washington, DC is not a state, legislation is sent to Congress for a 30 day legislative review period. During this time, if Congress passes a joint disapproval resolution and the president signs it, the legislation can be overturned.
The D.C. Death with Dignity Act was transmitted to Congress on Jan. 6, 2017. While the House Oversight and Government Reform (OGR) Committee voted 22-14 to advance a disapproval resolution, H.J. Res. 27, to overturn the D.C. Death with Dignity Act. Ultimately, Compassion & Choices, our storytellers and the residents of Washington, DC prevailed. Opponents failed to get the support necessary in Congress to stop the bill from becoming law and on Saturday, February 18th Washington DC’s Death with Dignity Act took effect.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of the challenges. While Compassion & Choices immediately launched a bilingual campaign to educate terminally ill D.C. residents, their families and medical providers about the benefits and requirements of D.C.’s new medical aid-in-dying law, opponents continued to try to overturn and defund the law, this time by way of the Harris Amendment.
Our successful efforts to exclude the Harris Amendment from the federal appropriations process included hosting a Capitol Hill briefing and meeting with more than 65 congressional offices from 30 states. Though we won the important battle, the fight wasn’t over. Annually, with each spending bill, opponents have the opportunity to attempt to force their values on the nation’s capital. Compassion & Choices monitors Congress and springs into action to protect the DC law whenever necessary.
While we won the battle in the legislature, it was not without cost.
Repeated congressional attempts to repeal the law unfortunately caused confusion about the status of the law, discouraging doctors, healthcare providers and patients from participating. Furthermore, the DC Department of Health issued regulations that were far more bureaucratic than any other states, including requiring doctors to register with the department of health. A full year had passed and not a single DC resident was able to access the law, including Mary Klein, one of our terminally ill advocates who had publicly advocated for passage of the law. Despite tremendous personal advocacy, she was initially unable to find a doctor willing to support her desire for this compassionate option.
In April of 2018, we took her case to the airwaves and launched a Week of Compassion for Mary. The goal was to raise awareness of needlessly burdensome regulations to patient and physician participation in the law, sparking a significant and reasonable streamlining of the regulatory process created by the department of health. Mary’s courage and our creativity paid off! Just moments after we conducted our press conference, Mary got a call from a doctor willing to help. She was able to successfully get through the process and on Tuesday, August 7, 2018, she decided to avail herself of the law. Click here to read a more detailed story of Mary Klein’s journey.
Mary’s courage opened up the door not just for her, but for others in the Washington, DC. And we continued to raise awareness about the availability of the law. As an example, we sponsored two 60 second public service announcements to educate D.C. residents about all of the end-of-life care options available in the District, including medical aid in dying authorized by D.C.’s Death with Dignity Act. Narrated by former NPR radio show host Diane Rehm and a former president of the American Medical Women’s Association, Dr. Omega Silva, the PSAs ran on outlets such as Black Entertainment TV, Bravo, Oprah Winfrey Network, MSNBC, The Weather Channel, Animal Planet, Hallmark Channel, Headline News, WE TV, TV Land, and NFL Network. You can watch both PSAs here.