Backers tout strong Delaware support for assisted suicide

DOVER — Judy Govatos wants to end her life on her terms.

The Wilmington resident is suffering from stage four cancer, and though it is currently in remission, she fully expects the disease to return. When it does, she wants to go peacefully at a time of her choosing.

“I can deal with death,” she said. “We’re all going to die, but I don’t think that I or anybody else should have to suffer in order to die.”

Evidently, most Delawareans agree with her: According to a poll released Tuesday, nearly three-quarters of respondents support legislation that would allow medically assisted suicide for some terminally ill patients.

Commissioned by Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit that supports “death with dignity,” the survey comes as legislation awaits a committee hearing.

Filed in May, the bill would authorize assisted suicide for any adult who has been diagnosed with “an incurable and irreversible disease, illness, or condition that as a medical probability, will result in death within 6 months.” Medication could only be dispensed if an individual has received consultation from multiple doctors, and no one could ask for medication on someone else’s behalf.

Conducted from Jan. 30 to Feb. 3, the survey of 781 likely Delaware voters reports 72 percent of respondents back legislation “that would give terminally ill patients with decision-making capacity the right to take medication to end their own lives.” Three-quarters support “allowing an adult with decision-making capacity, who is dying of a terminal disease with no hope of recovery, the right to bring about their own death.”

Backers are hopeful the polling will help sway lawmakers and advance House Bill 140, the third iteration of an assisted suicide measure filed by Rep. Paul Baumbach, a Newark Democrat. The previous two never received a floor vote, although Rep. Baumbach said this version is close to the necessary 21 votes to pass the House.

“This polling clearly reinforces what most of us have already known. Survey after survey, nationally and in state after state, have shown that support for medical aid in dying is broad and deep; in Delaware, support for medical aid in dying is simply overwhelming,” he said.

Paul Baumbach

“The survey shows that no matter where you live, no matter your party, your religion, race, age or gender, most Delaware voters want this option if they are faced with a terminal illness. The majority of residents from Bridgeville to Brandywine, from Leipsic to Laurel, from Wilmington to Wyoming, are waiting for their legislators to affirm their rights when it matters most, when they face their last days, and they are asking their legislators to support HB 140.”

The bill does not specify what medications would be used.

Three requests, with mandated waiting periods, are included in the proposal, which also specifies that no one can seek assisted suicide solely because of age or a disability. The bill spells out a formal process that seeks to ensure an individual is acting under his or her own will and is of sound mind.

The Department of Health and Social Services would be tasked with keeping records relating to assisted suicides. A death certificate for someone who opts to end his or her own life would list the cause as the underlying terminal illness.

For Ms. Govatos, chemotherapy was so taxing she does not plan to go through it again. She’s accepted her fate and is prepared to die rather than be kept alive with the aid of machines, constantly in pain.

There’s a time to fight and a time to accept your fate, she said, contrasting her situation with the efforts her family took in an unsuccessful attempt to save her daughter’s life more than a decade ago.

“My life, and how I will live my life, and my death depends on whether we get this bill passed or not,” said Ms. Govatos, who has bone marrow cancer.

But although supporters are confident the measure contains enough safeguards, others fear it could somehow be misused. Groups like the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington are also morally opposed to the concept, while the Medical Society of Delaware believes it violates the fundamental rule of medicine: to do no harm.

“If this bill passes, there are more questions than answers including what would be done if not enough physicians signed up. States like Washington have had to bring physicians into the state to do this work,” Dr. John Goodill, the society’s ethics chair, wrote. “Just when one of the most intimate difficult decisions of a doctor-patient relationship was needed, one might be referred to the ‘specialist’ who handles PAS requests.

“The Medical Society of Delaware has updated its position statement on PAS and reaffirmed its opposition. We all must focus our collective efforts where it can do the most good.

“By ensuring high-quality care, effective communication, compassionate support, and adequate resources, legislators as well as physicians can help ensure that all have access to that ‘good death’ the PAS proponents so ardently seek.”

Gov. John Carney also opposes the bill.

Eight states have assisted suicide laws, according to the Death with Dignity National Center. Seven of those have been approved since 2013.

Oregon, the first state to pass such a law, reported 2,217 prescriptions written there between 1997 and 2018, with 1,459 people dying from the provided medication.

The measure could be heard in the House Health and Human Development Committee as soon as next week, although Rep. Baumbach did not have a firm timetable Tuesday.