Virginia lawmakers consider proposal to legalize physician-assisted death : NPR


Barbara Green poses for a photo at her home on February 2, 2024 in Falls Church, Virginia. Green, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2022, urged state lawmakers to legalize medical assistance in dying.

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Barbara Green poses for a photo at her home on February 2, 2024 in Falls Church, Virginia. Green, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2022, urged state lawmakers to legalize medical assistance in dying.

Shaban Athuman/VPM

In 2022, Northern Virginia resident Barbara Green received news that no one wants to hear: she had pancreatic cancer. Doctors told him he probably had nine months to live. A year and a half later, the 79-year-old woman has defied all odds, but says she is lucid about the future.

“There is no cure for pancreatic cancer,” Green said. “It’s going to kill me at some point.”

The prognosis has led Green to consider ending her life on what she calls her own terms. In ten states and Washington, D.C., some patients with a terminal illness can ask their doctor for medication to end their lives. A physician – or in some states, a nurse practitioner or physician assistant – must consider the patient mentally competent and with a prognosis of six months or less to live.

“They can give me horrible chemotherapy drugs that can make me very sick,” Green said. “But they can't give me medicine to help me die peacefully if I'm at this point? I just… I don't understand.”

The debate has become increasingly common in states across the country. Nineteen state legislatures, including Virginia's, are considering bills related to medical assistance in dying, according to the advocacy group Compassion & Choices.

Group CEO Kim Callinan notes national and state-level polls show broad support for the practice. In Virginia, a 2022 Christopher Newport University Survey found that two-thirds of voters support giving a mentally competent adult with a terminal illness the right to request and obtain medication to end their life.

“Death is not partisan,” Callinan said. “When you look at the data, Democrats, Republicans, independents, libertarians, all support this option.”

In Virginia, Callinan has a powerful ally in U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton. Last year, the 55-year-old was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare and terminal illness. it is described as “Parkinson is on steroids.”

Wexton, which announced in September of the year that it would not seek re-electiondeclined an interview.

Virginia U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton, seen here at her home in Leesburg on September 16, 2023, announced that she will not seek reelection due to a diagnosis of progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative neurological disease.

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Virginia U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton, seen here at her home in Leesburg on September 16, 2023, announced that she will not seek reelection due to a diagnosis of progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative neurological disease.

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At a news conference last month, Sen. Jennifer Boysko read a letter from Wexton describing his illness.

The illness “has robbed me, my family, and the many people in my life that I love (and who love me) of so many things,” Wexton's letter read. “But if this bill becomes law in Virginia, it would return control over when, where and how our stories end to us, not our illnesses.”

Democratic lawmakers in Virginia, who control the state legislature, support the measures. The state Senate bill is expected to be voted on as early as Thursday afternoon.

It's unclear how Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin would handle the bills if they reached his desk; a spokesperson said he would review any measures passed by the Legislature.

The debate continues

The debate on medical assistance in dying remains more heated than ever. There is disagreement over the name of this practice; critics and some news outlets use the term “physician-assisted suicide”, while supporters of the project call it “medical aid in dying”.

“When you talk to people who choose this option, they are deeply, deeply offended if you talk about assisted suicide there,” said Callinan of Compassion & Choices. “Most of them desperately want to live. But unfortunately an illness takes their lives and they can't.”

Critics of physician-assisted dying include some religious groups, disability rights advocates and the American Medical Association. Last year, the AMA legislature voted against changing its position on medical assistance in dying, which its code of ethics described as “fundamentally incompatible with the doctor’s role as healer.”

Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, said she thinks the focus should be on reducing pain and combating anxiety and depression, not on ending the life of a patient.

“If you’re going to die, you’re going to die,” Turner said. “Let’s use this time in a way that helps you uplift yourself emotionally, physically, and to those around you.”

Turner said that while supporters of these types of bills focus on personal autonomy, medical assistance in dying has ripple effects on loved ones and reflects the shared values ​​of a community.

“It’s much bigger than the individual,” Turner said. “And it’s a lot more complicated than just, ‘I want to be in control. What does this mean for our entire society? »

If the bill fails in Virginia, patients who have the time and means to travel — and comply with bureaucratic and medical regulations — may still have options. Last year, the governors of Oregon And Vermont signed laws allowing foreigners access to medical assistance in dying.

Green plans to take up residency in Washington, D.C. to access this option if Virginia's measures are not adopted. She prepares for the unexpected; she said she didn't know exactly how her final weeks or days would go.

“Nobody does it,” Green said. “And that’s really, I think, what people need to remember: you never know what’s going to happen in your future.”



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