In late 2016, the Council of the District of Columbia approved a death with dignity bill, B21-0038, called the District of Columbia Death With Dignity Act. The bill passed with a veto-proof margin, and Mayor Muriel Bowser signed it on December 20, 2016. The law went into effect on February 18, 2017, after a mandatory 30-day Congressional review period expired.
In 2018, the latest year for which statistics are available, four people received prescriptions under the act and two used them to die. (For additional statistics, see the 2018 Death With Dignity Act Data Summary published by the Washington, D.C. Department of Health.)
This article first clarifies some confusing language related to death with dignity laws and then sets out the basics of the District of Columbia's law.
"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, D.C.'s proposed law states that terminating one's life under the law is not suicide. (See D.C. Code § 7-661.15 (2022).)
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 District of Columbia living will and durable power of attorney for health care. (See the end of this article for more information.)
To request a prescription for life-ending medication in D.C., a patient must be:
A patient who meets the requirements above will be prescribed aid-in-dying medication only if:
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 the District of Columbia's Death With Dignity Act here.
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 Nolo.com.
Updated January 31, 2022