Delaware’s House Bill 140 that would legalize physician-assisted suicide narrowly passed the House Human Development Committee Jan. 19 after a three-hour virtual hearing that included passionate testimony from dozens of people on both sides of the issue.
The bill may now be placed on the full House agenda after the 8-7 committee vote that split almost completely on party lines with all but one Democrat favoring it and every Republican voting against. If leaders decide to put it up for vote and it makes it through the House, the Senate would then need to take it up and move on it before the end of the legislative session June 30.
In a statement earlier this week, Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, said he would not support the measure.
The bill is being presented for at least the fourth time in the last five years in the Delaware legislature. A total of 62 members of the public signed up to comment on House Bill 140, which was the topic of discussion for three hours in an online hearing before the committee. The proposed law would permit a terminally ill person who is an adult resident of Delaware to request and self-administer medication to end their life.
Primary sponsor Rep. Paul Baumbach said the “Ron Silverio/Heather Block End of Life Options Act” was named after “mentally capable adults who asked for this, but we failed them.”
“We must hear from those who have standing on this issue,” he said. Baumbach presented two witnesses before the long stream of public testimony began.
Kim Callinan is president and CEO of the national group Compassion and Choices and testified in favor of HB 140. She said she knew the late Heather Block, one of the namesakes of the bill.
“I’m here today representing her and others like her,” Callinan said. “She died without the option she wanted.”
Christopher Riddle, director of ethics and professor at Utica College, testified that “many people with disabilities do support aid-in-dying. I don’t think it’s a moral failing to vote to pass this bill.”
Michelle Parsons is a physician in Delaware and said she opposes HB 140.
“Physicians take an oath to do no harm,” she said. “It is a slippery slope toward involuntary euthanasia. To think this will not be abused is naïve. We need to support what we have in place, which is hospice. We need to look at what’s not working in the system that we have.”
Joseph Fitzgerald, lobbyist for the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, told the committee the diocese is “profoundly opposed to the bill. This position is rooted in the church’s belief in the sanctity of life.”
Rep. Michael Smith, a Republican, said he opposes the bill and noted there was no medical testimony presented by the bill’s sponsor.
“This body has been very inconsistent with life-and-death measures,” Smith told the committee. “I have a real concern about the medical standard of care vs. the insurance standard of care.”
Rep. Ruth Briggs King of Milford, also a Republican, said she hears from constituents who overwhelmingly oppose the bill.
“It’s about representing the needs of the people who elected us,” she said. “They wholeheartedly oppose it.”
Resident Donna Austin spoke out against the bill.
“There are lessons that we learn from life – the good times and bad times,” she said. “That’s part of life.”
Voting in favor of the bill were Democrats David Bentz, Baumbach, Melissa Minor-Brown, Kendra Johnson, Debra Heffernan, Eric Morrison, John Kowalko and Sean Lynn. Voting against were Democrat Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Republicans, Charles Postles, Bryan Shupe, Smith, Briggs King, Kevin Hensley and Richard Collins.
The American Medical Association and the Delaware Health Care Association oppose physician-assisted suicide, as do advocates for those with disabilities, and many faith communities, according to an alert issued this week from the Delaware Catholic Action Network.
Michael Vest, another physician from Delaware, told the committee he opposes the bill.
“I fear this bill will have patients feel that they have no choice,” he said.
Vicki Santoro said she is a nurse with 42 years of experience.
“In that time, I’ve never had a patient ask to be killed,” she said. “How about if we give people the means to lead a better life? Especially at the end of life.”
In a statement Jan. 18, Carney said the state should do everything it can to enable people with terminal illnesses to die peacefully.
“I know this is an extremely difficult and personal issue for many of my constituents, and I have sympathy and compassion for those who are grappling with these painful questions,” the governor said. “Ultimately, though, I believe enabling physicians to facilitate suicide crosses a boundary that I’m just not comfortable crossing.”