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Bill to allow physician-assisted suicide sparks discourse

By Andrew Ringle, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Opponents of assisted suicide held a press conference Wednesday to reject legislation allowing patients with terminal conditions to request a life-ending substance from a physician.

While supporters of the proposal say the choice to end one’s own life is a human right, speakers at the event called the practice unethical.

“Suicide is incredibly sad,” said Dr. Mary Lopez during the press event held at the Pocahontas Building. “As a nation, we do not want to see our people killing themselves, unless you’re one of those who’s so passionate we fight for bills to allow doctors and others to prescribe deadly drugs to their patients.”

Lopez is the executive director of the Independence Empowerment Center, a nonprofit dedicated to providing options for people with disabilities. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992, and she spoke with others in opposition to House Bill 1649. 

The bill, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, would allow adults with terminal conditions that will result in death within six months to request from a health care provider a self-administered, controlled substance for the purpose of ending the patient’s life. Such a request would need to be made twice orally by the patient, along with a statement signed by the patient and a witness.

Kristen Hanson, a community relations advocate for Patients’ Rights Action Fund, spoke first.. Her organization is a nonprofit which aims to “oppose efforts to make suicide a legal medical treatment option,” according to the group’s website.

She said her husband, J.J., lived three and a half years after doctors diagnosed him with terminal brain cancer. If assisted suicide had been legal at the time of J.J.’s diagnosis, Hanson said her husband could have accessed a life-ending substance “during his darkest days.”

“Thankfully, J.J. didn’t end his life,” Hanson said in her statement. “But if he had suicide pills with him, he said he might have taken them. And you can’t undo that. There’s no going back.” 

Hanson said allowing suicide as a medical treatment could subject families to government pressure and the decisions of insurance companies, and that the state should improve other health care options instead.

Dr. Tom Eppes, a 40-year family practitioner from Lynchburg, said pain medication and hospice care are good alternatives. He spoke on behalf of the Medical Society of Virginia, of which he is a former president. 

Eppes criticized the bill, saying assisted suicides are “impossible to study” and not always successful. He said it “stretches credulity” to ask that physicians and nurse practitioners, as the bill proposes, be able to make such a judgement.

“Predicting death is not easy,” Eppes said. “Six months to live would include untreated Type 1 diabetes.”

He also criticized a policy outlined in the bill that would prohibit death certificates for patients who receive the treatment from listing suicide or homicide as the cause of death, saying it would allow “false reporting.”

“Assisted suicide is like cut flowers,” Eppes said. “They look beautiful on the base, but they wither because they have no roots. Physicians need a code of ethics like the original one that was written 2,500 years ago that includes a promise not to purposely take the life of the patient.”

Kate Vasiloff attended the press conference as a volunteer for Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group dedicated to educating the public about end-of-life options.

Vasiloff said she “absolutely” believes the choice to take one’s own life is a human right. She referenced her father, who she said had Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which attacks motor neurons and cells that control muscles. What kept him up at night, she said, was how the disease was going to end.

ALS received national attention when the “ice bucket challenge” went viral in 2014. Vasiloff said that trend, which involved pouring ice on one’s self to promote awareness for the disease, didn’t show people the reality of ALS. 

“You either asphyxiate from not being able to swallow properly, you suffocate because your lungs stop working, or you starve to death because the feeding tube has to be removed.”

She agrees with the policies outlined in HB 1649 because the bill is backed by advocates in the medical community and because similar legislation has found success in Oregon and other states.

“I think we owe people who serve our country and our families and our communities a better option,” Vasiloff said. “If they want to have one sliver of control over a situation where they’ve been dealt the worst hand possible, I don’t think that it’s our businesses to stand in the way of that.”

Sara Stern said her husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and he wished to receive a life-ending treatment while in hospice care. But because his caretakers were against the idea, Stern said her husband opted to voluntarily stop eating and drinking.

Stern watched as her husband died of thirst over the course of two weeks. After this, she said she wanted to advocate for end-of-life options like that in the House proposal.

“My promise to him was to take up this cause,” Stern said, “so that other people would not have to elect that same route if that was their strong wish.”

HB 1649 is currently in the Courts of Justice Committee, which next meets Friday.

Kory did not respond to multiple requests for further comment on the proposal.

Highsnobiety Style

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