DOVER — The House Health and Human Development Committee tabled legislation Wednesday that would legalize physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill.
The “death with dignity bill,” as it’s typically known by supporters, would grant those given less than six months to live as a result of a fatal condition the right to end their lives through drugs dispensed by a willing doctor.
Supporters say the proposal carries a host of measures to ensure the practice, if instituted, is not abused and does not have unintended consequences. However, opponents said Wednesday the safeguards do not go far enough.
Introduced by Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, House Bill 150 does not have any additional co-sponsors, marking it from the start as highly unlikely to pass — at least for now.
Eight members supported tabling the bill Wednesday, enough to keep it in committee. However, it could be heard again at any time if a majority of committee members vote to lift it from the table.
Rep. Baumbach is working on legislation to create a task force that would focus on the terminally ill.
“I think what I’m looking for is to gather more information,” he said afterward. “I think the task force would be a great venue to obtain more input from a broader cross section of people in Delaware and organizations in Delaware, and I’ll let that inform my next steps for House Bill 150.”
Three states have similar laws, and some jurisdictions in New Mexico allow assisted suicide. Oregon became the first state to legalize the practice, with a 1994 ballot measure granting terminally ill individuals the right to end their lives. Rep. Baumbach’s proposal was based on the Oregon law.
He estimated about 16 Delawareans per year would take advantage of the practice if the bill passes, based on numbers from Oregon.
Twenty individuals testified in the hearing, although only four supported the bill.
The United States already has a suicide “epidemic,” the Rev. Leonard Klein with the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington said, arguing the bill could encourage others to end their lives.
“You would be horrified if doctors gave their patients a loaded gun for this purpose,” he said.
He noted Oregon’s overall suicide rate is above the national average.
Rep. Baumbach rejected his argument that the practice would result in the deaths of Delawareans beyond those it’s aimed at.
“This is one that addresses end-of-life choices for terminally ill patients in Delaware,” he insisted during the hearing.
It’s based off of Oregon’s 18-year-law. It is time-tested.
“This is an extremely critical issue, extremely critical time, and as such, it deserves and we built into this bill, safeguards and more safeguards and more safeguards. This is patient-driven. No one can make this decision for you.”
Despite forceful testimony from several individuals, including a tearful widow of a man who suffered for years and wished to end the pain, most speakers were firmly against the policy.
“How do you choose which condition warrants immediate death?” Dr. Christine Metzing noted. “Is it the severity of the suffering or the length of the anticipated suffering? What criteria do you use?”
The bill defines a terminal disease as “an incurable and irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, produce death within six months.”
Several people said the bill would lead to doctors and insurance companies pushing physician-assisted suicide over more expensive treatment.
Lawmakers were skeptical the positives would outweigh the harm.
“I would rather err on the side of life than the side of death,” said Rep. Timothy Dukes, R-Laurel.
Even though the controversial bill was filed with no co-sponsors, that doesn’t mean it has no other supporters. Rep. Baumbach said he thinks the bill has gained some momentum. He estimated he had about 12 votes.
“I am open to having it come up again next year, but given it’s an election year and clearly this is a contentious issue,
I wouldn’t be surprised if it waits until 2017 to move again,” he said.