For Terminally Ill D.C. Residents, Death With Dignity Debate Is Personal

By Mikaela Lefrak • February 13th, 2017


On Monday evening, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which oversees the District of Columbia, will take the first step toward keeping D.C.’s Death with Dignity Act from becoming law.

As Republican Committee members prepare to initiate this rarely-used method of intervention in D.C. affairs, local residents and city officials are rallying for what they say is a deeply personal fight.

“They Would Be Taking Away The Most Personal Of Choices”

When Mary Klein heard in December that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had signed the Death with Dignity Act,  she let out a deep breath.

“I think that my first reaction was great relief,” Klein said on a recent chilly morning in D.C., as she watched her German shepherd puppy chew a toy at her feet.

Klein is 69 years old, with asymmetrically-cut gray hair and a wide smile. She lives on a quiet street close to Rock Creek Park with her wife of 13 years and their two dogs.

Klein is many things – a retired journalist, a dog trainer, a nature lover, and a photographer, to name a few.

She is also dying. She’s been fighting terminal ovarian cancer for over two years.

“I really don’t know how long I have to live,” she said. “My doctors just don’t know. Depends how well treatment works.”

Since being diagnosed, Klein has become familiar with pain. Chemotherapy has damaged the nerves in her feet, making it hard to walk. After one surgery, doctors closed up her body again using dozens of industrial strength staples. She’s also taken medicine that caused extreme pain inside her bones – a feeling that’s difficult for her put into words.

“I mean, it really is just like being hit by a bolt of lightning. You just…” She trailed off, and absently patted her dog’s head.

Recently Klein has become one of D.C.’s most vocal advocates for the Death with Dignity Act. The legislation would make it legal for a doctor in the District to prescribe her life-ending medication if she asks for it, once she receives a professional diagnosis of six months or less to live.

Klein is not afraid of pain; rather, she said she’s surprised herself over the past two years with her how high her pain threshold is. She also isn’t sure she would take life-ending medication if she had the prescription. What she wants, she said, is to take back some level of control over her death.

“If they were to overturn this law,” she said of Congress, “they would be taking away the most personal of choices – how to die. And I’ve never thought that the government would want to get involved to that kind of detail in my personal life.”

The D.C. Council passed the Death with Dignity Act in December, and Mayor Muriel Bowser signed it later that month. But under the D.C. Home Rule Act, Congress has a 30-day review period in which it can pass a disapproval resolution to block the bill. If Congress’s resolution makes it through the House and Senate and garners the signature of President Trump by February 17, the Death with Dignity Act will not become law.

If Congress cannot meet that deadline, Death with Dignity will go into effect in D.C. as soon as February 20, and the District would become the seventh jurisdiction in the country to legalize medical aid-in-dying in some form. California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington all have Death with Dignity statutes, while in Montana, a state Supreme Court ruling made it legal.

“Can’t We All Just Get Along?”

A few miles away in the NoMa neighborhood of D.C., Shirley Tabb is gearing up to wage her own battle against Congress on behalf of her clients.

Tabb moved to D.C. 25 years ago from Arkansas, and still holds on to a bit of her southern twang. A social worker, Tabb works with older, homebound clients, many of whom are nearing the end of their lives.

Like Klein, Tabb said she views the Death with Dignity Act as being about personal freedom – for dying people, and for D.C. at large.

“To die with dignity, to maintain one’s autonomy as much as they can, this resonates with me,” Tabb said.

Some members of Congress oppose Death with Dignity on religious grounds. Others believe black, poor, or disabled people could feel pressured to take the medication.

And others, including the chairman of the House Oversight Committee Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), believe D.C. is disregarding the sanctity of life. “In the interest of protecting DC residents, it is imperative that Congress act,” Chaffetz wrote in a an op-ed in the Washington Post last month, which he co-authored with Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint.

Tabb calls that an insult to D.C.’s democratic process.

“He is sounding as if people in the district don’t have the sense to make their own decisions. I would like to talk with him personally. I really would,” she said.

“They Have No Mechanism By Which to Hold Jason Chaffetz Accountable”

Many D.C. leaders share Tabb’s sentiment. Over the past few weeks, staff from Mayor Bowser’s office have been meeting with Republican members of Congress from states with Death with Dignity laws, such as California, Washington, and Colorado. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton sits on the Oversight Committee and has spoken out against the disapproval legislation.

D.C. Council members have also gotten involved. Ward 6 Councilman Charles Allen will host a Monday night event called Hands Off D.C. to organize residents to push back against Congressional intervention.

“I think even people who oppose a measure don’t want to see Congress interfere with it,” he told WAMU.

“If I make a decision that the voters of Ward 6 think I’ve completely messed up,” he said, “they have a mechanism by which to hold me accountable. They have no mechanism by which to hold Jason Chaffetz accountable, or any other member of Congress.”

For her part, Mary Klein has been advocating for end-of-life options alongside her Ward 4 Council member Brandon Todd, and the Ward 3 Council member, Mary Cheh, who first introduced the Death with Dignity Act to the Council in 2015. But despite the fact that Klein is terminally ill, she said she doesn’t think about her own death very much.

“I mean honestly, I concentrate on the moment, and I want to enjoy life to the fullest that I can. And so that’s my project,” she said.

Klein and Tabb both said they’ll be at the Congressional hearing Monday night. They won’t be allowed to speak, but they’ll be there anyway, hoping their presence counts for something.


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