D.C. Health Defends Assisted-Suicide Implementations

Agency says registries are designed to protect vulnerable patients, disputing assisted-suicide advocates' criticism

A doctor holds up a drug testing kit which is used as part of assisted suicides
A doctor holds up a drug testing kit which is used as part of assisted suicides / Getty Images
April 25, 2018

The Washington, D.C., Department of Health said its assisted-suicide program is designed to protect vulnerable patients, disputing criticism from advocates that it has hampered access to lethal medication.

The nation's capital joined six other states in legalizing physician-assisted suicide in 2016 and began implementing the practice in February 2017. The city stuck by the law despite threats from Congress to override the practice and claimed victory when the Republican-controlled legislature failed to include a veto of assisted suicide in its Omnibus bill.

Despite its political victory, assisted suicide has failed to gain traction among terminally ill patients or doctors. Zero patients have utilized their newfound freedom to commit suicide and only 2 of the city's 11,000 doctors have signed up to prescribe lethal doses of medication to their patients in the wake of legalization. The lack of popularity led advocates of assisted suicide to claim the Department of Health has sabotaged implementation, pointing to online registries that require doctors to undergo informational training in order to assist in suicides, as well as optional educational courses for patients.

A department spokesman said the city has faithfully attempted to implement assisted suicide in the district. He defended the registries as safeguards against manipulation of vulnerable patients.

"We feel that the process we've put in place meets the spirit of the law and that it is accessible to all physicians and patients," the spokesman said. "We tried very hard to be protective of the public, physicians, and patients."

Assisted-suicide advocates from Compassion and Choices have been critical of the department. Kat West, a C&C official who has helped institute assisted suicide in other states (what she calls "medical aid in dying") said bureaucratic interference is responsible for the lack of popularity in Washington, D.C. Terminally ill patients do not have the time to go through the department's optional regime and physicians and pharmacists are given faulty information that steers them away from helping people kill themselves, according to West.

"The administrative rules promulgated by the Department of Health are so overly complicated and burdensome," she said. "They make [patients and doctors] go through all these hoops.… These are dying people and they have so little time and so little energy."

The department spokesman said that patients deserve every bit of information in order to make an informed choice. The comprehensive nature of the website is designed to help them form a decision, rather than influence them one way or the other. The department, he said, is neutral as to what that decision may be, but it plans to address any perceived barriers to access.

"We're here to serve the public, and we listen to the public. We think the process is something people should be able to work with. We're dealing with lethal medication here," he said. "You have to put in protections that may require some work from physicians."

The department is now working with the city council to address concerns with the law, though "there's nothing within the system we feel needs to change."

Published under: Assisted Suicide