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.
On July 13, 2017, the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to repeal D.C.’s Death With Dignity Act through an amendment to the proposed 2018 federal budget. And on September 14, 2017, the House passed the spending bill. However, the full Senate and President Trump must approve the measure before the District’s aid-in-dying law would be repealed.
On July 17, 2017, Mayor Bowser announced that all regulations required to fully implement the law are in place, allowing terminally ill patients in D.C. to request aid in dying in certain clearly defined situations.
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 B21-0038, Section 16.)
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 on the Council of the District of Columbia’s website.
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.