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Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton

Representing the District of Columbia

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Norton Releases Opening Statement Ahead of OGR Markup of Resolution to Nullify D.C. Medical Aid-in-Dying Bill, This Evening

Feb 13, 2017
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) released Norton’s prepared opening statement for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (OGR) markup of a disapproval resolution to nullify the District of Columbia’s medical aid-in-dying bill, the Death with Dignity Act, this evening, Monday, February 13, 2017, at 5:30 p.m., in 2154 Rayburn House Office Building.

In her prepared opening statement, Norton said, “This disapproval resolution and markup reflect contempt for democracy, limited government, local control of local affairs and, most important, the nearly 700,000 American citizens who reside in the District of Columbia, pay the highest per capita federal income taxes in the United States and have fought and died in all of this nation’s wars.  It is time that this committee and the House majority treat the District of Columbia with the respect for local democracy that is accorded local jurisdictions you cannot reach.  This disapproval resolution is an abuse of Congress’ power over the District—it is bullying, pure and simple.  In 1973, Congress passed the Home Rule Act to give D.C. authority to legislate on local matters, with only a few enumerated exceptions, and to ‘relieve Congress of the burden of legislating upon essentially local District matters.’  Medical aid in dying is not among the exceptions.”

Statement of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton
Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
Markup of H.J.Res. 27, “Disapproving the action of the District of Columbia Council in approving the Death with Dignity Act of 2016”
February 13, 2017

Mr. Chairman, this disapproval resolution and markup reflect contempt for democracy, limited government, local control of local affairs and, most important, the nearly 700,000 American citizens who reside in the District of Columbia, pay the highest per capita federal income taxes in the United States and have fought and died in all of this nation’s wars.  It is time that this committee and the House majority treat the District of Columbia with the respect for local democracy that is accorded local jurisdictions you cannot reach. 

This disapproval resolution is an abuse of Congress’ power over the District—it is bullying, pure and simple.  In 1973, Congress passed the Home Rule Act to give D.C. authority to legislate on local matters, with only a few enumerated exceptions, and to “relieve Congress of the burden of legislating upon essentially local District matters.”  Medical aid in dying is not among the exceptions.

The duly elected members of the D.C. Council, who alone are elected by the city’s residents, approved the Death with Dignity Act twice in votes separated by at least 13 days, as required by the Home Rule Act, and approved it each time by a vote of 11-2.  The duly elected mayor signed the bill.  We fully recognize that medical aid in dying presents complex moral, legal, medical and ethical issues.  The D.C. Council held a hearing on the bill to examine these issues, where 69 experts and concerned citizens testified both for and against it.  It is a sign of disrespect not to give the mayor and Council chairman a chance to defend the bill before this committee prior to today’s markup.

While I support the policy of medical aid in dying, if Members believe it is bad policy, they should have the courage of their convictions and introduce a bill to ban it nationally, not pick on residents they view as defenseless.  The reason a national ban has not been introduced in recent years is simple.  It has failed before, and likely would fail again.  Soon after Oregon became the first state to implement medical aid in dying, two Republican-led Congresses tried to effectively ban medical aid in dying by prohibiting doctors from prescribing medication subject to the Controlled Substances Act for medical aid in dying—the Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act of 1998 and the Pain Relief Promotion Act of 1999.  Both bills failed to pass.  Since then, medical aid in dying has become legal in five more states, and, according to Gallup, 69% of Americans supported it in 2016.

I am not requesting that Members take a position on the merits of the Death with Dignity Act, only on the District’s democratic right to pass its own laws.  However, I want to describe the safeguards in the bill.  The bill is substantially similar to the laws of the five states that have legalized medical aid in dying by statute, and there have been no documented abuses under those statutes.  There are now 20 years of experience with legal medical aid in dying in the U.S., and the evidence demonstrates that it has worked as intended.  The parade of horribles predicted by opponents has not materialized. 

Participation under the Death with Dignity Act is voluntary for patients, doctors, pharmacists, health care entities and health insurers.  The bill allows doctors authorized to practice medicine in D.C. to prescribe lethal medication to mentally competent, terminally ill adult D.C. residents.  The patient must make three separate requests (two oral and one written), separated by at least 15 days, for the medication.  Two doctors must confirm that the patient has an incurable and irreversible disease that will, within reasonable medical judgment, result in death within six months, is mentally competent and is acting voluntarily.  The patient must be informed of alternatives, such as hospice care.  Two people must attest in writing that the patient is not acting under duress.  If the patient chooses to take the medication, he or she must self-administer it.

We need to be honest in this debate.  Medical aid in dying has always been a common part of the practice of medicine.  As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has noted, “Running beneath the official history of legal condemnation of [medical aid in dying] is a strong undercurrent of a time-honored but hidden practice of physicians helping terminally ill patients to hasten their deaths.”  The Death with Dignity Act provides needed regulation of this practice.

The Death with Dignity Act is an incremental change in law.  In the U.S., it is legal for doctors to sedate terminally ill patients with intolerable pain into a coma, which can hasten death.  Patients also have the right to refuse or withdraw lifesaving medical treatment, hydration and nutrition for any reason, regardless of whether they have a terminal disease.

I urge my colleagues to reject this anti-democratic disapproval resolution.

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