Delaware lawmakers consider death with dignity legislation

 (Paul Parmelee/WHYY)

(Paul Parmelee/WHYY)

A look inside the controversial assisted suicide proposal.


In Delaware, there are several options available for terminally ill patients looking for a better quality of life during their last stages—such as hospice care and social services.

But there may be another controversial alternative if legislation introduced by a state representative is passed.

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Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, proposed legislation Thursday to legalize “death with dignity,” also known as physician assisted suicide, in Delaware.

If passed, the legislation would allow terminally ill patients to receive medication to induce death before increased suffering during the last weeks of life.

“For those who are committed to this approach it’s something that gives them a great amount of comfort along with their families,” Baumbach said.  

Medically aided death is a controversial issue in the United States, and is only legal in Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Those in favor, including organizations like Compassion and Choices and the Death with Dignity National Center, say terminally ill patients should have the option of ending life peacefully, before the suffering often faced in the weeks before death. Those opposed say it goes against medical ethics, and doesn’t allow physicians to provide patients with other options.

Baumbach’s legislation, which currently has no co-sponsor, is based on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which was enacted in 1997.

Two physicians must agree a patient is within six months of dying, and patients also must pass a mental health exam if a physician is concerned about their mental state. 

The patient would be the only person authorized to make the request, which must be done both orally and in writing and could be rescinded at any time. The person would have to wait at least 15 days after the initial request before receiving the drugs.

Despite the restrictions outlined in the legislations, the Medical Society of Delaware say it is opposed to medically aied death.

“Saying to physicians, ‘It’s okay to help patients commit suicide,’ it’s not something we’re trained to do,” said Nancy Fan, president of the Society and an OBGYN at St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington.

Fan said physicians should discuss with their patients other options available that make them feel more comfortable and at east in their last stage of life.

“I think we believe legislating this and legalizing it is really giving patients options preemptively before they’ve considered other factors that need to be involved,” she said.

“We have 15 physicians and all of us inherently said, ‘This is not why I became a doctor.’ This is not what we think of when we took our oath when we decided to become providers of care.”

Baumbach’s legislation will be discussed during a committee meeting in June, and other representatives will have the opportunity to give their opinion on the matter.

“This is a really sensitive issue, it’s a painful time in the lives of the families and it’s really important we address this safely and respectful, and I’m dedicated to doing that,” Baumbach said.

“I think it can be done well and I’m hoping how we’re approaching it is as respectful as is warranted.” 

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