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Death With Dignity in Virginia

Virginia is considering a death with dignity bill that would allow terminally ill patients to request life-ending medication.

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of states considering death with dignity laws. Sometimes called "assisted suicide" or "right to die" initiatives, these laws make it possible for terminally ill patients to use prescribed medication to end their lives peacefully rather than suffering a painful and protracted death.

The catalyst for greater national attention to this issue was 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, a woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon to end her life in 2014. Maynard chose Oregon because California had not yet passed its aid-in-dying law, and Oregon is one of just a few other states to allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives.

Virginia's 2022 Death With Dignity Bills

Virginia lawmakers have been trying to pass an aid-in-dying law since 2018. Now in the 2022 legislative session, the Virginia General Assembly is considering two new death with dignity bills: the Virginia Death With Dignity Act (SB668) and the Virginia Medical Aid in Dying Act (HB1095). Each bill, if passed, would allow terminally ill patients who meet certain requirements to request life-ending medication.

This article first clarifies some confusing language related to death with dignity laws and then sets out the basics of Virginia's proposed law.

Death With Dignity, Assisted Suicide, Right to Die: What's in a Name?

"Death with dignity" is one of the most commonly accepted phrases describing the process by which a terminally ill person ingests prescribed medication to hasten death. Many people still think of this process as "assisted suicide" or "physician assisted suicide." However, proponents of death with dignity argue that the term "suicide" doesn't apply to terminally ill people who would prefer to live but, facing certain death within months, choose a more gentle way of dying. In fact, Virginia's proposed law states that terminating one's life under the law is not suicide. (See SB668, Section 54.1-2999.1 and HB1095, Section 54.1-2999.1.)

Increasingly, health organizations are turning away from the term "suicide" to describe a terminally ill patient's choice to reduce the suffering of an inevitable death. The phrase "aid in dying" is becoming a more accepted way to refer to this process.

You may also see the phrase "right to die" used in place of "death with dignity." However, "right to die" is more accurately used in the context of directing one's own medical care—that is, refusing life-sustaining treatment such as a respirator or feeding tubes when permanently unconscious or close to death. You can provide your own health care directions by completing a Virginia advance health care directive. (See the end of this article for more information.)

An Overview of Virginia's Medical Aid in Dying Bill

Virginia's proposed law is modeled closely on Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, which took effect in 1997. If Virginia's law passes, a patient requesting aid-in-dying medication will have to be:

  • at least 18 years old
  • a Virginia resident
  • mentally capable of making and communicating health care decisions, and
  • diagnosed with a terminal disease that will result in death within six months.

A patient who meets the requirements above will be prescribed aid-in-dying medication only if:

  • The patient makes two verbal requests to their health care provider, at least 15 days apart. (However, HB1095 would waive the 15-day waiting period if the health care provider has confirmed that the patient is fewer than 15 days from death when making the initial verbal request.)
  • The patient gives a written request to the health care provider, signed in front of two qualified, adult witnesses. (The law sets out the specific form that the patient must use.)
  • The prescribing health care provider and one other health care provider confirm the patient's diagnosis and prognosis. (Under the provisions of HB1095, if the patient is enrolled in hospice care at the time of the request, no confirmation is required.)
  • The prescribing health care provider determines that the patient is capable of making medical decisions.
  • The patient has a psychological examination, if the prescribing health care provider feels the patient's judgment is impaired.
  • The prescribing health care provider confirms that the patient is not being coerced or unduly influenced by others when making the request.
  • The prescribing health care provider informs the patient of any feasible alternatives to the medication, including care to relieve pain and keep the patient comfortable.
  • Under SB668, the prescribing health care provider must ask the patient to notify their next of kin of the prescription request, although the provider cannot deny the patient's request based solely on their inability or unwillingness to notify anyone. (HB1095 does not contain this provision.)
  • The prescribing health care provider offers the patient the opportunity to withdraw the request for aid-in-dying medication before granting the prescription.

To use the medication, the patient must be able to ingest it on their own. A doctor or other person who administers the lethal medication may face criminal charges.

You can read the full text of Virginia's Death With Dignity Act and Virginia's Medical Aid in Dying Act on the Virginia General Assembly website.

Learn More

To find out more about the history and current status of death with dignity laws in the United States, visit the website of the Death With Dignity National Center.

For information about appointing a health care agent and making known your own wishes for medical care at the end of life, see the Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney section of

Updated February 1, 2022

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