The Catholic University of America

CUA Law Professor Lucia Silecchia published an October 7 op-ed in the Washington Examiner entitled "DC's dangerous 'Death with Dignity Act'" See below.

DC's dangerous 'Death with Dignity Act

The Washington Examiner 
October 7, 2016
Lucia Silecchia

The District of Columbia's City Council will soon vote on legislation under the deceptively innocuous title: "The Death with Dignity Act." This assisted-suicide statute is hardly innocuous. Just as troubling, it is one of many pieces of legislation on the subject being introduced across the country.

I have no illusions about the nature of death and its pain. I've witnessed it firsthand. I also believe, unequivocally, that those at life's end and those who love them need and deserve care and support — not the implicit message that fragile lives should no longer be lived. The Hippocratic Oath includes an ancient promise not to "give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked" and not to "advise such a plan." This bill identifies a vulnerable group of people — those with a "terminal" diagnosis — for whom this will mean nothing. Along with the Council, all District residents must read this proposal carefully and ask some hard questions.

First, the bill defines "terminal disease" as one that merely two physicians believe "within reasonable medical judgment … [will] result in death within 6 months." How confident should we be about imperfect predictions on such profound matters? These predictions can be wrong. What prevents this from expanding to include patients expected to live only 1 or 2 or 5 years? Or those who live with painful disability, debilitating injury, or chronic illness? Or those who find life burdensome in any deeply painful way? The rationale that allows death for any vulnerable person can easily — and not illogically – expand. The legislation includes euphemisms and technical guidelines to convince the public that this is not the start down that slippery slope. Cautionary tales from other nations warn us not to believe them. Just last month, a minor was euthanized in Belgium, and justifications for facilitating death have expanded far beyond the original statutory terms.

Second, two people must witness the patient's request for poison. Read carefully. One of them may be an "interested" party who stands to gain by the patient's death. Traditionally, wills have required multiple disinterested witnesses for obvious reasons. What does it mean to have erected greater safeguards to dispose of mere property than to end human life?

Further, the bill allegedly requires "counseling" if a physician believes that depression, coercion or other difficulty clouds a patient's judgment. How meaningful is this when the physician may hardly know the patient or where physician-shopping can run rampant? One should surely question whether depression could be distinguished from the natural sadness that follows traumatic diagnosis. Referrals for counseling are shockingly rare in states with similar laws. Why is the City Council not more concerned with expanding quality mental health care for suffering patients?

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Lucia Silecchia  

Professor Lucia Ann Silecchia's
Areas of Expertise

Environmental Law and Ethics

Catholic Social Thought and the Law

Elder Law and Estate Planning

Legal Writing

For additional information about our professors' areas of speciality, see the Catholic University Experts page.