by Jud Richland, volunteer coordinator at the Northern Virginia chapter of Compassion & Choices, the national organization that advocates for legalizing medical aid in dying (MAID)
The national debate about death with dignity is coming to Virginia sooner than you may think. Death with dignity, also known as medical aid in dying (MAID), refers to the medical practice of a terminally ill, mentally capable adult requesting medication from his or her doctor, which allows for a peaceful death if the person so chooses. The underlying premise of MAID, of course, is that we should respect the wishes of terminally ill patients who have weeks or days to live about how they would like to best address their pain and suffering
At Del. Kaye Kory’s request, the Virginia Joint Commission on Health Care, which is an arm of the General Assembly, has been studying MAID for two years. The Joint Commission today released its report and is seeking public comment on whether the Joint Commission should support authorization of the practice. The public comment period is an opportunity for Virginians to stand up for the right to choose the medical care they want.
According to Delegate Kory, “Giving terminally ill patients the right to decide for themselves how to address their pain and suffering without stigma or political interference closely parallels the battle to allow women to make personal reproductive decisions that are best for themselves and their families. The ability of individuals to make informed medical care decisions for themselves is a fundamental human right.”
Seven states and Washington, DC have authorized MAID. Incited by the religious right, however, conservatives in Congress have made several attempts to overturn DC’s law. Likewise, just days after the California End of Life Option Act took effect, several religious organizations filed suit to overturn the law. The conservatives haven’t yet been successful, but they continue to try. In Virginia, the Virginia Catholic Conference has already begun an aggressive effort to persuade the Joint Commission to oppose MAID legislation.
A large majority of Americans support MAID. A 2017 Gallup poll found that 73% of U.S. adults agree that when a person has a disease that cannot be cured, “doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life by some painless means if the patient and his or her family request it.” Although MAID often becomes a partisan issue in states when legislation is introduced, the fact is that even most rank-and-file Republicans support it. Case in point — in Colorado in 2016, Hillary won the state by five points but the ballot initiative to authorize MAID passed 65% to 35% despite a well-funded campaign by the religious right to defeat the initiative.
Even a majority of physicians – 57% according to a 2016 Medscape survey – support MAID. In fact, in recent years many state and national medical organizations have abandoned their long-held opposition to MAID and adopted positions of support or neutrality.
In Virginia, terminally ill patients already have the right to bring an end to their suffering in a variety of ways. They can voluntarily stop eating and drinking; they have the right to discontinue or refuse treatment; they can ask to be taken off life extending support, such as respirators, with the knowledge that death will follow; and doctors frequently give terminally ill patients large doses of medications to place patients in a state of palliative sedation with the knowledge that death will follow as a direct result.
Yet, while all of those medical practices are common in Virginia, terminally ill patients are still not allowed to request medication that allows them to die peacefully at the time and place of their choosing to end unbearable pain and suffering.
Del. Kory has drafted a bill that she is considering introducing next year to authorize MAID in Virginia. The Joint Commission report will provide a sound basis for having a rational discussion about MAID. Yes, it’s true that as long as the General Assembly is controlled by Republicans, MAID legislation is unlikely to move. But the Joint Commission’s public comment process is an opportunity to make a strong show of support for MAID and show legislators that Virginians want access to the full range of medical care options at the end of life.
Express your support for authorizing MAID in Virginia by submitting a comment to the Virginia Joint Commission on Health Care at JCHCPublicComments@jchc.virginia.gov. Make sure to specify you support Option #2 – introduce legislation to authorize MAID in Virginia. Encourage your friends, families, and networks to submit comments and to share information about the Joint Commission public comment period. For updates, visit https://www.facebook.com/compassionchoicesva/.