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Assisted suicide bill narrowly clears Delaware House panel

January 20, 2022 GMT

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A bill allowing doctor-assisted suicide in Delaware cleared a Democrat-led House committee by a single vote Wednesday, paving the way for possible consideration by the full House.

Committee members voted 8-7 to release the measure, with Wilmington Democrat Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha joining all Republicans in voting against it.

The bill is the latest iteration of legislation that has been repeatedly introduced by Newark Democrat Paul Baumbach since 2015 but which has never received a floor vote. Nine states — in addition to Washington, D.C. — have passed laws legalizing medically assisted suicide, according to the advocacy group Death with Dignity.

Supporters and opponents took turns praising and condemning the bill during a three-hour committee hearing. Opponents argue, among other things, that the bill conflicts with the professional and ethical obligations of doctors and other health care providers, devalues human life, and will make suicide more prevalent and socially acceptable.

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Supporters argue that terminally ill people should be allowed to enlist the help of medical professionals in ending their pain and suffering.

“It’s a very rational and logical and thought-through decision,” said Kim Callinan, president and CEO of Compassion and Choices, a group that has lobbied for assisted-suicide legislation in several states.

Callinan, who was invited by Baumbach to testify, also argued that equating “medical aid in dying” with suicide is “irresponsible.”

Christopher Riddle, an ethicist at Utica College in New York also invited by Baumbach, suggested that voting against the bill would be a “moral failing” by lawmakers.

“We’re denying autonomy to competent adults who wish to make choices pertaining to their care at the end of their lives,” he said.

Opponents of the bill include the Delaware Healthcare Association, which represents the hospital industry, and the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. Members of the medical community, and advocates for people with disabilities, are split on the issue.

The Medical Society of Delaware has opposed the legislation for years, but adopted a position of “engaged neutrality” late last year.

Dr. Matthew Burday, president of the society, said the group plans to play an educational role and inform legislative efforts regarding shared decision-making between doctors and patients.

“In this process, physicians will not be required to provide medical aid in dying that involves prescribing lethal doses of medication if it violates personally held ethical principles,” he said.

Dr. James Monihan, a pathologist who opposes the bill, said the shift in the Medical Society’s position was the result of a 14-9 vote taken “suddenly and very conveniently” at a sparsely attended meeting in November.

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“The current opinion of the Medical Society does not represent the stated opinion of the majority of the medical community in Delaware, and in fact is the opinion of 14 people who have chosen to abdicate their professional responsibility, betray their patients’ trust and quite clearly violate the Hippocratic Oath,” he said.

The bill allows an adult who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and expected to die within six months to request prescription drugs from a doctor or advanced practice registered nurse to end his or her life. A consulting physician or nurse would have to confirm the diagnosis and prognosis. The patient would have to be evaluated by a psychiatrist or a psychologist if any of the medical professionals involved is concerned that he or she lacks decision-making capacity.

The patient would have to make two oral requests for a lethal prescription, followed by a written request, and would have to wait at least 15 days after the initial request before receiving the drugs.

The bill states that any provision in a contract, will, or other agreement that would affect whether an individual could make or rescind a request for lethal prescription “is not valid.” It also states that requesting, prescribing or dispensing the lethal medication “does not, for any purpose, constitute elder abuse, suicide, assisted-suicide, homicide, or euthanasia.”

The legislation goes further to assert that the act of killing oneself with self-administered prescription medication does not invalidate any part of an insurance policy or annuity.

Christina Haas of the Delaware Department of Insurance noted that many policies include carveouts for suicide, and that the bill creates “an important safety net for the fallout” of physician-assisted suicide.

Some opponents have suggested that the bill promotes fraud regarding insurance policies and death certificates.

“The patient’s death certificate may attribute the death to the person’s original illness and not to suicide,” said Mary Ann McLane, a retired clinical laboratory scientist. ”Allowing the person’s death not to be called what it truly is, suicide, would become a part of the law. It is government legalizing something that is on its nature, a falsehood.”