Home Our Diocese Dramatic discussion, narrow vote gives opponents of physician-assisted suicide a victory in...

Dramatic discussion, narrow vote gives opponents of physician-assisted suicide a victory in Delaware — for now, at least

The pro-life march and rally in March stopped at the Green in front of Legislative Hall for a few speakers. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

After an impassioned debate of more than an hour June 20, Delaware senators turned back HB140 that would have legalized physician-assisted suicide in the state.

Senators may have disposed of the contentious issue for this session unless parliamentary wrangling takes place and at least one senator changes their mind.

The bill’s primary Democrat sponsor, majority leader Sen. Bryan Townsend, spoke in favor of the bill and voted for it, but changed his vote to “no” before the roll call was officially recorded. By voting with the majority in the narrowly defeated legislation, he preserved the ability to move to rescind the vote and call for another tally before the June 30 end of session.

The vote was close enough that the senate could have ability to again consider the bill before the end of the session. All six Republicans and five Democrats either voted no or did not vote, giving the necessary 11 votes to HB140 opponents. The Senate has 21 members and requires a simple majority to pass a bill.

It’s possible for Townsend to move to rescind the roll call and restore the bill, seeking another vote if he can get one of his colleagues to switch sides.

The tight vote came at the conclusion of a lengthy debate that mostly included remarks from senators against physician-assisted suicide.

“It shouldn’t be taken lightly that life is precious,” said Sen. Eric Buckson, a Republican from Kent County who voted no. “No one is voting from a place of indifference. I sympathize, but there are deep concerns. I’m not there at this time.”

Many senators leaned on personal experience in shaping their vote.

Sen. Bryant Richardson shared losing his sister at 64-years-old and a sister-in-law at 65.

“Even though they had a lot of pain late in life, they had a lot to share with the family,” he said. “They passed peacefully. This is something we cannot support.”

Sen. Nicole Poore, a Democrat from New Castle, said she worries about her child with a disability and what could happen as legislatures change and the law evolves.

“Life and death is not without its own challenges, but I don’t believe it needs to be legislated,” she said. “I’m a firm believer in choice, but I don’t know one doctor who can correctly deliver a death date.”

“In other states where they have this, they’re already talking about ‘their worth is not of value’” when it comes to people with disabilities, she said.

Poore said her husband received a cancer diagnosis 11 years ago.

“There were ups and down,” she said. It was a struggle for the couple and their three children, she said, and they still have each other. “I’m thankful it wasn’t even an option.”

Supporters of the bill were represented on the floor of the senate by Townsend.

“This is about those individuals who want a choice,” said the senate majority leader. “This is about respecting them.”

Many of his colleagues spoke up in opposition.

Sen. Spiros Mantzavinos, a Democrat from New Castle County, worries about what has been described as guardrails in the bill.

“Guardrails can be uninstalled,” he said. “They can be modified. I am troubled by the pressures individuals may face. It’s documented that the last two years of life are the most expensive. These sorts of things can distort the decision-making process.”

Sen. Jack Walsh spoke of losing his sister to cancer and his own deliberation on the physician-assisted suicide proposal.

“I’ve always been a ‘no’ but I thought this might be the day I could come in and be a ‘yes,’ but I just can’t get there,” said Walsh, who echoed others in saying it was among the most difficult vote he’s had to cast. He said his sister was a fighter and he quoted Jimmy Valvano, the famous NCAA basketball coach of the 1980s whose life was claimed after a battle with cancer.

“He said ‘Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.’”

Voting no or not voting were Democrats Darius Brown, Kyra Hoffner, Poore, Mantzavinos and Walsh, and Republicans Richardson, Buckson, Gerald Hocker, Brian Pettyjohn, David Wilson and Dave Lawson.

Townsend voted no after originally voting yes.

Voting in favor of the physician-assisted suicide bill were Democrats Sarah McBride, Elizabeth Lockman, Laura Sturgeon, Kyle Evans Gay, Russell Huxtable, David Sokola, Stephanie Hansen, Marie Pinkney, Trey Paradee.

The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington was among numerous organizations that opposed the bill, which was similar to one defeated earlier in the year in Maryland, where the diocese includes churches, schools and organizations along the Eastern Shore.

Bishop Koenig spoke out last week, wanting people in the diocese to know that life from birth until natural death is how we were meant to live and no law should allow people to take their own lives.

“In many ways, especially in this climate where there’s an epidemic of people and families who are affected by people who take their lives. For us as a society to say ‘Well, now it’s legal’ or this is something that is fine, it’s certainly something that is against most people’s experiences,” the bishop said.

“We really have to be very concerned about the most vulnerable amongst us, whether it’s people who are feeling depressed or people with physical infirmities,” he said. “Those people need our care even more as opposed to our saying ‘It’s OK for you to take your life, so you’re not a burden to us.’ My plea to people would be that they realize the people who are vulnerable are in need, and as human beings, that’s who we should care for.”

The senate would have to pass the bill by June 30, the end of the legislative session, and send it to Gov. John Carney, who could sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

Carney has previously stated his opposition to assisted suicide.