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On Feb. 20, 2017, the Death with Dignity Act became law in the District of Columbia. It was the sixth “state” to allow a person to make a decision to end their life with prescriptive medication when they are given a diagnosis of six months or less to live due to a terminal disease.
This legislation which is not without controversy has now created an additional option and discussion point for individuals and families to have. Within a society where many people do not have estate plans because there is a distaste to discuss “such things,” the requirement for having the conversation is even greater.
The law that has been enacted allows an adult who has been deemed mentally competent to make such a decision to receive a prescription for medication to end his or her life after being diagnosed with a terminal disease and given less than six months to live.
The enactment of the law requires the patient to make two oral requests separated by at least 15 days to an attending physician. A written request must be signed and dated by the patient, to the attending physician before the patient makes second oral request and at least 48 hours before a covered medication may be prescribed or dispensed. Two witnesses must attest to the best of their knowledge and belief that the patient is capable, acting voluntarily and not unduly influenced to sign the request.
While the District of Columbia has passed the law that empowers a person to make the decision for him or herself regarding taking the actions to end his or her life, it is important to consider options and support the friends and families who have been walking this journey with you.
As an estate planning attorney, I have the opportunity to sit with individuals and ask difficult questions regarding health care guidelines that should be established for the people who will speak for him or her when there is no capacity to speak for himself or herself.
When someone has an illness that is determined to be incurable and the doctors believe that there will be no more than six months left to live, this is a difficult time. Historically people make the determination to stop medical treatment that may seek to find a cure or prolong life as the ultimate decision prior to a person having the power to determine when death could happen with medication. One could choose only to receive medication to alleviate pain and suffering while not hastening death.
Yet, this decision can only be made by the patient. This is a decision that must be made with full capacity. Action and decision making is empowering if made with full capacity and information. The decision can create an opportunity to bring families and loved ones closer together.
While it is a personal decision only for the patient, it is just a very few people who walk this journey alone. We are much stronger when we act in concert with our loved ones. Most of the decisions that we make affect the loved ones that we hold most dear. We are strengthened and empowered by the collective. As in all of health care decisions we should discuss our preferences with the people that we have identified as our proxy agents and support system.