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Medically assisted suicide bill introduced by state lawmakers

Roman Battaglia
Delaware Public Media

State lawmakers are debating the ethics of legalizing medical aid in dying, also known as medically assisted suicide.

Like previous attempts, House Bill 140 would expand end of life options for terminally ill patients, by giving them a way to end their own life if requested.

Polling in past years shows over 60 to 70 percent of Americans support doctor-assisted suicide as an option for terminally-ill patients.

Delawarean Judith Govatos has faced cancer twice, and is now in remission.

But Govatos says when the cancer comes back, she doesn’t want to face another round of painful treatments, and says hospice care can only go so far to relieve someone’s pain.

“Without this bill you are sentencing me and many, many people like me to a bad, terrible death," she says. "Our only crime is being old and sick or just terminally sick.”

Some bill opponents believe legalizing medically assisted suicide will make the practice more acceptable in society, and patients who face a terminal diagnosis may feel they have no other choice but to end their lives.

Daniese McMullin Powell is a disability advocate in Delaware, formerly the chair of the State Council for Persons with Disabilities.

“When such laws take the stigma off of having assistance or even doing it yourself that it’s okay, it makes it more common," Powell says. "And it makes other people that arent even terminal have the idea that it’s okay.”

Powell says medically assisted suicide laws can create equity concerns, where suicide prevention is marketed towards the young and healthy, and assisted suicide towards the old and disabled.

But proponents pushed back, saying without this option, many people with less than six months to live often face drawn out and painful deaths. Having the choice to end their lives when they choose too allows them to do it in a dignified manner, surrounded by family.

State Rep. Paul Baumbach (D-Newark), the bill’s sponsor, says there are numerous safeguards in place to ensure the patient is making a rational decision.

Baumbach and others note the importance of this bill for insurance. By legalizing medically assisted suicide, benefactors will still be able to recieve life insurance payouts, which normally include a clause nullifying the payout in the event of suicide.

One major change from previous years is the longstanding reverse of opposition to the bill by the Medical Society of Delaware.

MSD President-elect Robert Varipapa says the society has decided to instead adopt a neutral but engaged position, meaning the group will work to act as a resource for patients and providers on the practice, without advocating for it themselves. (Note: Varipapa is the chair of Delaware Public Media's Board of Directors)

The bill cleared its committee hearing, with lawmakers releasing it with an 8 to 7 vote. It now heads to the House floor for debate.

Roman Battaglia is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Corrected: January 19, 2022 at 4:57 PM EST
The term assisted suicide has been updated to medically assisted suicide in the headline and body of this story, in order to align with Associated Press Style.
Roman Battaglia grew up in Portland, Ore, and now reports for Delaware Public Media as a Report For America corps member. He focuses on politics, elections and legislation activity at the local, county and state levels.