I watched a close friend and native Washingtonian, Pam, battle and beat breast cancer twice. She was a brave, strong, God-fearing woman who inspired me. Unfortunately, the cancer came back a third time and I watched her suffer at the end of her life. The doctors did all they could and gave her copious amounts of pain medication. Yet, sometimes when Pam was in an almost comatose state, she would hold her head and moan because the pain was overwhelming.
Pam should have had the option of medical aid in dying. It would have enabled her to get a doctor’s prescription for medication she could have decided to take to peacefully end her suffering and die gently in her sleep. I do not know if she would have chosen medical aid in dying, but I would have given anything for her to have this option. She is the reason why I fight — and will continue to do so — for those who deserve to have this option at their end of their lives and do not want to suffer unnecessarily.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill that included an amendment by Maryland Congressman Andy Harris to repeal the D.C. Death with Dignity Act that authorizes medical aid in dying for terminally ill adults in D.C.
The D.C Council passed the law by an overwhelming 11-2 vote, including five of the six African-American councilmembers, last November. The law took effect in February.
I spent two years lobbying the D.C. Council to pass this law. The Council took the time to get educated on the facts. They studied the six states (California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, Washington) where medical aid in dying is authorized, which have a combined 40 years of experience with this option and no evidence of misuse. The D.C. Council did their due diligence before they passed this very important law. Congress did not.
If Rep. Harris and his allies succeed in repealing D.C.’s law, it may inspire them to seek a nationwide ban on medical aid in dying, voiding the laws in six states and legislation introduced this year in 26 states, including Maryland. Polling in Maryland shows 59 percent of African-Americans support this end-of-life care option.
African-Americans tend to suffer more than other communities at life’s end because we do not have access to or do not utilize end-of-life care options that minimize suffering. For example, our rates of hospice and palliative care use are extremely low. We represent more than 13 percent of our nation’s population, but account for only 8 percent of hospice use. We are also less likely to complete advance directives or have conversations with our families and healthcare providers about our end-of-life care goals, preference and values. Medical aid in dying is an opportunity for our community to engage in these conversations and ensure we receive the end-of-life care we want.
The legislative fight now moves to the U.S. Senate. It’s our responsibility to tell our Maryland senators, Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, to stop this congressional overreach and stand with D.C. residents. Whether or not you would use this law is not the issue. The issue is whether we continue to let others make decisions for us without us. D.C.’s elected officials have spoken on behalf of their constituents. Now it is time for us to support them and let our voices be heard as well.
Donna Smith lives in Laurel, Md. She is the D.C. Access Campaign Public Outreach Manager for Compassion & Choices, a non-profit that works with patients as they approach the end of their life.