Delaware bill seeks to grant medical aid in dying

By Olivia Montes
Posted 7/25/21

For many residents within the First State, like Judy Govatos and her family, having the right to control one’s own final wishes is crucial.

Ms. Govatos, of Wilmington, lost her daughter 17 …

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Delaware bill seeks to grant medical aid in dying


This article has been updated to  correct information on the number of states and jurisdictions that allow medical aid in dying as well as the states that were the first and most recent to do so. 

For many residents within the First State, like Judy Govatos and her family, having the right to control one’s own final wishes is crucial.

Ms. Govatos, of Wilmington, lost her daughter 17 years ago due to thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura — and had done everything legally possible to save her — multiple surgeries, resuscitation and intubation.

Ms. Govatos experienced her own battles with stage 4 lymphoma beginning in 2014.

“I’ve gotten a remission, and I have a very full life — but this ... was absolutely brutal,” she said. “At points, I lost my vision. ... I didn’t know my name. I couldn’t write my name. I was sick, very, very sick ... for almost a year. But I got better. However, at my age, I don’t want to go through that again because I had no quality of life.”

Ms. Govatos is a strong supporter of the Ron Silverio/Heather Block Delaware End of Life Options Act, or House Bill 140, which seeks to grant residents medical aid in dying. The bill was recently reintroduced to the state House by primary sponsor Rep. Paul Baumbach (D-Newark), after earlier versions of the bill failed to pass.

The legislation is named for two state advocates from Dover and Lewes, both of whom passed away in 2018 without such medical assistance.

If enacted, the bill would permit a mentally apt, terminally ill adult resident of the state “to request and self-administer medication to end the individual’s life in a humane and dignified manner.” The patient would need the mandated certification from two registered health care providers — one attending and the other consulting — and a diagnosis or prognosis that determines the said-patient has six months or less to live.

The bill also prohibits medical professionals from coercing terminally ill patients into approving and using medical aid in dying, emphasizing the significance of choice within this legislation.

“We are in a pluralistic society (where) we have a lot of different views across our state — and this is one where we’ve seen for decades that it is a policy that can be executed very faithfully,” said Rep. Baumbach. “We went and found what has been working for decades across the country ... and the main concern is, if you don’t want to do it, you don’t do it and you cannot coerce somebody else into doing it.”

If enacted into law, Delaware would become the 11th state and  12th jurisdiction to allow medical aid in dying. New Mexico was the most recent state to pass medical aid-in-dying legislation on April 8, 2021, with Oregon being the first state to do so in 1994. 

According to a study published by survey research group GBAO on Feb. 11, 2020, 72% of Delaware residents are in support of the bill’s passage, with 50% strongly supporting, 20% in opposition and 13% strongly opposed.

Opponents continue to use terms such as “assisted suicide,” “euthanasia” and “physician-assisted suicide.” The bill specifies that actions taken will not “for any purpose, constitute suicide, assisted suicide, mercy killing or homicide.”

When the bill was reintroduced in 2020, Gov. John Carney opposed the bill and its passage. A spokesman said his position has not changed since then.

In an official statement, the Medical Society of Delaware states that, while recognizing that “there are well-meaning people on both sides of the issue,” ultimately, they continue to believe that “this practice is problematic given the nature of the patient-physician relationship, affecting the trust in that relationship as well in the profession, and fundamentally alters the medical profession’s role in society.”

In a statement from Office of Communications Director Robert Krebs, the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, as well as the Catholic Church at large, “nationally, internationally (and) vehemently oppose medical aid in dying.”

In a seven-page document Mr. Krebs provided detailing the church’s opposition, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops writes that, “The healing art of medicine is an important part of this assistance.”

“Even when a cure is not possible, medicine plays a critical role in providing ‘palliative care’ — alleviating pain and other symptoms and meeting basic needs,” the statement continues. “Such care should combine medical skill with attention to the emotional as well as spiritual needs of those facing the end of life.”

Alternatively, proponents like retired hematologist oncologist Dr. Rita Meek, of New Castle, feel the potential passage of this legislation would mean that not only will the issue be acknowledged, but the need for medical aid in dying as an option for all patients statewide would also be heard.

That comes from her 40 years within the medical field, but also personal experience. She saw her own brother, who had suffered for five years with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), voluntarily stop taking care of himself to end his suffering due to being unable to receive the medical aid in dying he wanted.

“It’s a horrible thing to have someone you love have to go through this, when you know that there is no chance of anything getting better,” she said.

“As we get older, we have first- and secondhand experiences of people passing and the vast majority of them are ones that go well, but we all know there are passings that do not go well,” Rep. Baumbach said. “It’s truly a national issue, and it’s in our neighborhood.”

“Why should they not have this, this option to partner with medical professionals to give them that assurance that they have control in their last days (or) if the pain becomes unbearable?”

On June 30, HB 140 was assigned to the state House Health & Human Development Committee, and is currently awaiting further discussion upon the return of the General Assembly in January 2022.

“We’re hopeful that lawmakers will hear the stories of our very own supporters who are desperate for this option, and (will) understand that the bill provides great comfort to people who are facing end of life,” said Tim Appleton, advocacy and outreach program director for the national nonprofit organization Compassion & Choices.

“(This) isn’t a question of if this will pass for us, but when, and the next question is, in the time it takes it to pass, how many people will suffer unnecessarily without this option that they could have used?”

In the meantime, Ms. Govatos said that she and others will continue to fight to make sure that residents throughout the state have the right to experience a “good death.”

“This is about how you can get help with dying and have a death that’s in keeping with your values, and that honors the people who are going through this with you, sparing them as much pain as possible,” she said. “I see this (bill) really as asking for help — it’s not about right and wrong ... it’s a matter of kindness, it’s a matter of compassion and it’s a matter of living life to the fullest.”