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Delaware lawmakers weigh ‘death with dignity’ legislation

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(The Center Square) — Delaware lawmakers are advancing a controversial proposal that would allow physicians to administer lethal doses of medicine to terminally ill patients.

The proposal, narrowly approved by the state House of Representatives on Thursday, would put Delaware in line with Vermont, Maine and 10 other states that have authorized physician-assisted suicide allowing terminally ill patients to be prescribed a lethal dose of medication to end their lives. The measure moves to the state Senate, which also must approve the bill before sending it to Gov. John Carney for consideration.

State Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, said the proposal would give individuals struggling with terminal cancer and other debilitating ailments the option to end their pain if hospice or palliative care can’t alleviate their suffering.

“This puts the choice in the dying person’s hands to determine whether or not they wish to self-administer the medicine,” Baumbach said in remarks ahead of the bill’s approval.

Critics of assisted suicide, including medical and religious groups and advocates for those with disabilities, say misdiagnoses are common. Terminally ill patients suffer from depression, they say, and may irrationally decide to end their lives.

Others argue that legalizing physician-assisted suicide would encourage suicide among those suffering from depression and other mental health issues.

But supporters say Delaware’s proposal has numerous safeguards, including rules to keep doctors from prescribing lethal drugs to those with mental health issues or impaired judgment.

The bill would require patients to make two verbal requests for a doctor’s intervention at least 15 days apart and a written request signed by two witnesses. A physician would need to certify that the patient seeking access to lethal medicine is suffering from an incurable, irreversible condition.

The patient would have to be evaluated by a psychiatrist or a psychologist to ensure they have a decision-making capacity. A patient would not qualify for physician-assisted suicide only because of old age or a disability.

The wording of the bill also states that requesting, prescribing or dispensing the lethal medication “does not constitute elder abuse, suicide, assisted suicide, murder or euthanasia for any purpose.”

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1997 left the issue of physician-assisted suicide largely up to states. Since then, 37 states have banned the practice, either at the ballot box or by legislative act.

But physician-assisted suicide is legal in the District of Columbia and 10 states, including Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, Washington, Colorado and California, according to the advocacy group Compassion and Choices.

Maine’s “death with dignity” law went into effect in 2019 after it was passed by the Democratic-led Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills.

Methods of physician-assisted suicide vary by state but generally involve a prescription. Doctors are required to notify patients of alternatives, such as hospice care, and wait at least 48 hours after receiving a written request from a patient.

A recent poll found that 72% of Delawareans support allowing doctors to legally prescribe lethal drugs to help terminally ill patients end their own lives should be an end-of-life option in the state.

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