House Committee advances measure to block assisted suicide in D.C.

July 14, 2017

The following article appeared in the Washington Post on July 14, 2017:

The House Appropriations Committee late Thursday advanced a measure to repeal the District’s assisted suicide law, known as Death with Dignity, opening a new front in the city’s battle for self-determination.

The measure, introduced by Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), must still be approved by the full House and Senate, as well as President Trump, before it can take effect.

“We have the absolute ability to judge anything that the District of Columbia does that we think is bad, bad policy,” Harris said during debate on the measure. “This is really bad policy.”

His amendment to squash the assisted suicide law passed 28 to 24 along party lines except for Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), who joined the Democrats to vote against the measure. Newhouse comes from one of six states where assisted suicide is legal.

“None of the members opposing our law were elected to represent our residents,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in a statement on the House committee’s passage of the assisted-suicide rider. “This is not a federal issue. This is a local issue. Members of Congress who are interfering with our laws must begin to realize what they are really doing: attempting to sidestep the democratic process to impose their personal beliefs on 681,000 Washingtonians.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s nonvoting representative, said she will try to strike the District-related measures when the budget bill goes to the House floor “so that no member will get a pass on stepping on D.C. home rule and violating the basic Republican principle of local control over local affairs.”

Harris, a longtime antagonist of the District, also offered but then withdrew an amendment that would have blocked the city from using its funds to enforce a law that prohibits disposable wipes in the city’s sewer system.

The committee passed three other measures that limit D.C. autonomy and have become routine under GOP House budget bills. They say the District cannot spend money without federal say so, block the city from using local tax dollars to subsidize abortion for low-income women, and prevent the city from spending money to regulate the sale of marijuana.

D.C. Council Member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), the author of the assisted-suicide law, said in a statement that Harris’s bill “would directly result in the prolonged suffering and pain of District residents” who are terminally ill.

The D.C. Council passed the assisted suicide law by an 11 to 2 vote after more than a year of intense discussion and lobbying on the part of lawmakers, advocates and opponents.

Advocates say the measure would allow terminally ill patients to choose the timing and manner of their deaths. But social conservatives oppose assisted suicide because they see it as undermining the sanctity of life.

The District is the first predominantly black community to legalize assisted suicide. Some African American residents, along with advocates for the disabled, fear that the law will steer some people to premature death.

The city’s assisted suicide law faced multiple opponents, including a contingent of House Republicans, after Bowser quietly signed it late last year. Trump’s budget proposal prohibited funding for the D.C. law.

Under the law’s current implementation timeline, terminally ill District residents will be able to legally end their lives with the help of a doctor beginning in late September.

The legislation was modeled after the nation’s first physician-assisted suicide law, enacted in Oregon. It would allow doctors to prescribe fatal medication to patients believed to have less than six months to live. Patients would have to make two requests over two weeks and ingest the drugs themselves.

Harris, an anesthesiologist who specializes in obstetrics, called the law a “poorly written” and “misguided” policy that would have doctors encouraging patients to commit suicide.

“New, stunning cures in medicine occur each and every day,” he said in a statement Friday. “Encouraging patients to commit suicide deprives them of the opportunity to potentially be cured by new treatments that could ameliorate their condition and even add years to their lives, if not cure them completely.”

During the committee vote Thursday, Harris said he worried people will flock to the District “to get a lethal injection at the prescription of a physician who plays God.”

Kim Callinan of national group Compassion & Choices noted the law does not call for an injection and likened the process to taking a sleeping pill.

“You’ve got dying people who get peace of mind knowing this option is available,” she said. “[Members of Congress] did an end-run around the system and put their personal interests ahead of the interests of the people of D.C.”

Harris, the only Republican in Maryland’s congressional delegation, represents the state’s rural, conservative Eastern Shore.

His local colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee voted in line with their parties. Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.) voted for Harris’s amendment; Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) voted against it.

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