Bill to legalize medical aid in dying for eligible, terminally ill Virginians passes state Senate

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A bill that would allow eligible terminally ill patients in Virginia the option of medically-assisted death, or “medical aid in dying,” has passed the state Senate along a narrow margin.

The bill, Senate Bill 280, passed 21 to 19, along party lines. It previously advanced from Senate committee with a similarly divided vote.

SB 280 would “[allow] an adult diagnosed with a terminal condition to request and an attending health care provider to prescribe a self-administered controlled substance for the purpose of ending the patient’s life,” according to its text.

“This legislation would allow an eligible individual the autonomy to decide when their suffering is too great,” Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield), the patron of the bill, said during Senate floor proceedings.

Hashmi said she has spoken to many constituents who support the measure — known broadly as the “Death with Dignity” bill — and added that similar legislation has passed in 10 other states.

According to Hashmi, some of those she has spoken to about this bill have said their suffering is great enough that they would resort to leaving Virginia to receive medical aid in dying if necessary — but they do not want to.

“They would rather die in Virginia,” Hashmi said. “They would rather die with their loved ones. They would rather make that decision as a Virginian.”

Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) opposed the legislation on the Senate floor, saying this bill would introduce a “suicide contagion” to Virginian communities.

“We need to focus more on helping to provide better palliative care and hospice care,” Obenshain said. “That’s where our focus should be. This is the wrong approach at the wrong time.”

Sen. Christopher Head (R-Botetout) said legislation such as this presented a moral question of whether or not it was “right to artificially end a life.”

Head said this bill would set a dangerous precedent and could be potentially misused in the future.

“What happens next is — when it becomes inconvenient for society to care for someone, then it [medical aid in dying] becomes recommended and suggested,” Head said. “That demeans human life in horrific ways.”

Hashmi said the bill has “more than a dozen safeguards,” ensuring medical aid in dying only be used in the most specific of situations.

Within the bill’s text is a list of steps a terminally ill patient must take in order to receive medical aid in dying. These steps include:

  • A patient must orally request medical aid in dying from their attending physician twice, with the second request being at least 15 days after the first
  • Following the oral requests, a patient must give their attending physician a third request for medical aid in dying in writing. This written request must follow the template provided in the bill’s text
  • A patient must be at least 18 years old and a resident of Virginia
  • A patient must have a formal diagnosis of a terminal illness, unless currently receiving hospice care
  • A patient must be determined capable of making an informed decision about medical aid in dying
  • A patient must be determined as having requested medical aid in dying voluntarily and without any influence from outside sources
  • A patient must be given information on alternative care options, such as comfort, palliative or hospice care
  • A patient must be thoroughly informed of what medical aid in dying entails, including:
    • Explanation of the controlled substance that will be provided
    • Explanation of what will happen when the substance is taken, how it will end the patient’s life and that it may take time to do so
    • Explanation of what the risks associated with the substance are
    • Explanation of the risks associated with having family, friends or others around when the substance is taken

Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) read a letter given to her by U.S. Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton, who currently serves the 10th District of Virginia but previously held Boysko’s seat in the state Senate.

Wexton previously carried Death with Dignity legislation in 2018 — five years before she would be diagnosed with the rare, neuro-degenerative disease Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP).

“There are thousands of Virginians dealing with terminal illnesses — facing unthinkable challenges and choices because of these devastating health conditions, and that’s why this legislation is so critical,” Wexton wrote. “It is vital step towards allowing Virginians to gain the dignity, freedom and peace of mind we deserve in the face of a tragic, terminal illness like mine.”

PCP affects many bodily functions, including movement and speech. It is known to be heavily resistant to treatments used for Parkinson’s and other similar diseases, making it especially difficult to manage.

“It is heartbreaking to watch a loved one struggle through the pain and suffering and trauma that comes with a terminal disease,” Wexton wrote. “Individuals and families across Virginia should be able to make these decisions that [are] best for each of us in these difficult circumstances.”

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