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Virginia considers measure allowing physician-assisted death | Bills and Laws

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The legislation would allow terminally ill patients to get medications to end their lives, and it’s inspiring fierce debate.

The skinny

Lawmakers in Virginia are debating a measure that would make physician-assisted deaths legal. The measure has engendered passionate support and opposition.

Image credit: ©Laura Anderson - stock.adobe.com

Lawmakers in Virginia are debating measures that allow physician-assisted death for terminally ill patients. (Image credit: ©Laura Anderson - stock.adobe.com)

Summary

Democrats in Virginia’s General Assembly have sponsored legislation that would allow individuals with terminal illnesses to request drugs to end their lives. Sponsors have said the legislation would allow patients to die with dignity and reduce suffering.

The Virginia Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee approved the measure with a 10-5 vote on Tuesday, WUSA-TV reports.

Under the measure, adults with a terminal illness could ask a healthcare provider to prescribe a controlled substance to end their life. Patients would be able to get a drug that they would administer themselves.

The measure calls for a patient to request a life-shortening medication orally on two occasions and in writing, signed by both the patient and a witness. Patients would be told they could rescind their request at any time.

Virginia state Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, the sponsor of the legislation, said at a January press conference, ““This is a bill designed to alleviate suffering for those who are terminally ill,” WVTF-TV reports.

The legislation would offer immunity from civil or criminal liability for providers, and it also allows providers to decline to participate in prescribing medication to end the patient’s life.

Read more: Bipartisan measure aims to protect hospital workers from violence

Supporters

Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group, supports the legislation and is pushing for similar measures in other states. Kim Callinan, CEO of Compassion & Choices, told NPR that the measure has strong public support that crosses political ideology. A 2022 poll found 7 in 10 Virginia residents support allowing terminally ill residents to get medical assistance to end their lives.

“Death is not partisan,” Callinan told NPR.

U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Virginia Democrat, has spoken out to support the bill, motivated by very personal reasons. Last year, Wexton said she was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, which she has described as “Parkinson’s on steroids.” She disclosed the diagnosis in announcing she won’t seek re-election.

Wexton wrote a letter in support of the bill, which was read at the January press event to rally support for the legislation. As WVTF reported, state Senator Jennifer Boysko tearfully read Wexton’s letter, which stated, “If this bill becomes law in Virginia, it would return the control over to when, where and how our stories end, not to the diseases.”

Opponents

Religious leaders in Virginia have spoken out against the legislation.

Two Catholic leaders, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington and Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond, issued a joint statement saying they are “alarmed and deeply saddened” by the debate among Virginia lawmakers. They are urging Catholics to reach out to lawmakers to tell them to reject the legislation.

“People facing the end of life are in great need, and must be accompanied with great care and attentiveness. To address each of their needs and alleviate their suffering, patients deserve high quality medical, palliative, and hospice care – not suicide drugs,” the bishops read.

The American Medical Association continues to oppose medically-assisted death.

The AMA’s Code of Ethics states, “Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.” The AMA’s House of Delegates opted against changes to the policy last fall.

Outlook

The future of the legislation is unclear. A spokesperson for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he’d review the legislation if it reaches his desk.

Ten states allow physicians to prescribe medications allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives, and measures are being considered in other states.

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