By Chris Haring

Right-to-die advocates, including state lawmakers, displayed their support for the latest version of an assisted-dying bill ahead of a recent public hearing.

When, in a powerful moment at a January 22 press conference at the Virginia General Assembly building in Richmond, state Senator Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) shared a heartfelt letter in favor of SB 280 from her predecessor, U.S. Representative Jennifer Wexton (D-10th), it was clear that supporting medical aid in dying for people living with terminal illnesses wasn’t just hypothetical to the legislators – it was personal. 

A personal plea for expanded end-of-life options

As Joe Dodson wrote for Courthouse News Service, Wexton, who served in Boysko’s seat before winning a Congressional bid in 2019, shed light on the struggles of folks who, like her, have been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy. 

Ultimately, the representative wrote, the disease will render her increasingly immobile as she grows older, with her golden years to feature “costly renovations to enable me to remain in our home when I can no longer walk” instead of “scuba diving and Scrabble on the beach.”

Support grows for aid in dying among Virginia legislators

Boysko, with Senator Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) and Delegate Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), introduced the bill, which aims to position the state as the 12th jurisdiction to allow those diagnosed with a terminal illness the option of a self-administered controlled substance to end their lives peacefully – and on their own terms.

Since 2019, when then-Delegate Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax) introduced the first aid-in-dying bill in the Virginia legislature, a version has landed on the docket every year except 2021, but failed to advance to a vote each time. However, advocates say that lawmakers have been slow to react to growing public sentiment that those facing a terminal diagnosis deserve access to expanded end-of-life options.

A veteran of the right-to-die movement weighs in

Death with Dignity National Campaign Strategist Geoff Sugerman, a key architect of the 1994 Oregon Death with Dignity Act – the first in the country – explained how extensive safeguards exist in the Virginia bill, thanks to meticulous crafting of legislation to prevent potential abuse.

Further, bipartisan support for physician-assisted dying, Sugerman added, has grown, including passionate advocacy from some older Republican men, who he said are “used to being in control of their lives throughout their entire existence,” and feel that they are in danger of losing their personal liberties at the end of their lives.

For Virginians living with a terminal illness, now is the time to act

In Wexton’s courageous letter, she didn’t just highlight her personal struggle but those of “thousands of Virginians facing unthinkable challenges and choices because of… devastating health conditions” who may eventually find themselves in the unenviable position of considering medical aid in dying. The representative and state lawmakers like her friend Sen. Boysko continue to affirm that “families across Virginia should be able to make a decision” that is best for themselves.

(Note: SB 280 secured its first significant milestone when, after the public hearing, the Senate health subcommittee recommended it for advancement.)

For more information on how to get involved in efforts to bring a Death with Dignity law to Virginia, please visit the state page on our website.

Read the full article below:

(Disclaimer: As they appear in the following story, the terms “assisted suicide” and “euthanasia” are incorrectly used as synonyms for “medical aid in dying” and “physician-assisted dying/death.” Notably, in jurisdictions with codified Death with Dignity laws, each specifies that medical aid in dying is, in fact, not suicide, nor a means to assist in suicide, so to conflate the two is technically and legally inaccurate.)

Virginia legislators seek to become 12th jurisdiction to legalize medical aid in dying

By: Joe Dodson
Published: January 22, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Virginia state Senator Jennifer Boysko held back tears and read a letter written by her friend U.S. Representative Jennifer Wexton, who suffers from progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), in support of medically assisted death. 

“My husband Andrew and I were supposed to be getting to the good part of midlife as new empty nesters,” Wexton wrote in the letter. “Instead, he will be a caregiver and we’re looking at costly renovations to enable me to remain in our home when I can no longer walk. We will not enjoy a leisurely retirement a decade from now. There will be no scuba diving and Scrabble on the beach.” 

For Wexton, her disease makes choices for her, like taking her ability to walk or talk or feed herself, but the 55-year-old wants the right to decide how she dies rather than the terminal disease.  

“There are 1000s of Virginia’s dealing with terminal illnesses facing unthinkable challenges and choices because of these devastating health conditions,” Wexton wrote. “That is why this legislation is so critical. It is a vital step allowing Virginians to gain the dignity, freedom and peace of mind we deserve in the face of a tragic terminal illness like mine.” 

State Senator Ghazala Hashmi, Boysko and Delegate Patrick Hope, all Democrats, introduced legislation that would allow terminally ill patients to receive a self-administered controlled substance to end the their life. Virginia would become the 12th jurisdiction to allow medically assisted death, joining the likes of New Mexico and California along with the District of Columbia. 

“I know that this is a very complex, a very philosophical and ethical decision for many people,” Hashmi, who has carried the bill the last three sessions, said. “I’ve also spoken to many constituents who have said they themselves are not sure if this is a decision that they will make at the point of having to decide what next steps they will take. But one thing that they ask is that they have the right to make that decision.” 

National campaign strategist for Death with Dignity Geoff Sugerman was a part of the small group that wrote Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, the first law of its kind, in 1994. Sugerman said in an interview that when constructing the bill, they implemented safeguards to prevent abuse of the legislation.

First, an applicant must be qualified for hospice care, meaning they’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months as confirmed by two qualified health care providers. The applicant must be fully capable of making their own health care decisions as determined by doctors. They must also be acting voluntarily and are required to administer the life-ending medication themselves. 

“This legislation gives terminally ill people the ability to focus on living the last days of their lives fully, without worrying about what their death will look like,” Compassion & Choices advocacy manager Melissa Stacy said at the press conference. “It gives them the freedom to not worry about whether or not they will die a horrible death.” 

Religious institutions, namely the Catholic Church, have opposed the legislation, saying it goes against their teachings. Pope Francis spoke against medically assisted death while expressing gratitude for palliative care in 2022. 

“However, we must be careful not to confuse this help with unacceptable drifts towards euthanasia,” Francis said. “We must accompany people towards death, but not provoke death or facilitate assisted suicide.”

The Virginia Association of Centers for Independent Living also opposes the proposed bill. Instead, the group supports palliative sedation, a practice where the terminally ill are sedated for the last days or hours of their life before their disease ultimately kills them.  

“Assisted suicide will diminish already scarce support, increase the potential for coercion and end the lives of people simply because they have a disability,” the group’s advocacy coordinator Maureen Hollowell said in a statement. 

According to Susquehanna Polling & Research, nearly 8 out of 10 U.S. residents who self-identify as having a disability agree that medically assisted death should be legal for the terminally ill. Along with Virginia, 17 other states, including Florida and New York, are considering bills to legalize the practice this year. 

Sugerman said one of the demographics particularly passionate about the issue is elderly Republican men. 

“These are people who are used to being in control of their lives throughout their entire existence,” Sugerman said. “They are allowed to make decisions themselves, and here at the end of their lives, we have states that say ‘No, you can’t.'” 

The bills have language that allows doctors and pharmacies to opt out of providing the medication should they personally object. Sugerman said insurance companies typically do not cover the expenses and the medication, usually a combination of several drugs administered orally, can be up to $2,500. 

“It’s 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 a decision that is best for each of us in such difficult circumstances.”