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Virginia Senate passes bill to legalize medically-assisted deaths in 21-19 vote

The bill has been referred to the State House Committee for Courts of Justice for further consideration

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin has not yet indicated whether he would sign or veto the bill if it passed in the House.
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin has not yet indicated whether he would sign or veto the bill if it passed in the House.

The Virginia State Senate passed a bill that would allow mentally and physically capable terminally ill adult patients to seek medically-assisted death Feb. 9. Senate bill SB-280, titled “Health care; decision-making, definitions, medical aid in dying, penalties,” passed by a 21-19 vote, with Democrats voting mostly in favor and Republicans voting mostly against. The bill was introduced to the Virginia House of Delegates Feb 15. for further consideration.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has not yet indicated whether he would sign or veto the bill if it passed in the House. 

According to its text, the bill would let healthcare providers “prescribe a self-administered controlled substance to a qualifying patient for the purpose of ending the qualifying patient’s life, upon request of the patient.” 

Mary Faith Marshall, director of the Center for Health Humanities and Ethics at the School of Medicine, said the bill would bring a sense of control and self-regard to people who feel a lack of agency due to their disease. 

“It’s not just about physical pain and suffering, but it’s about the patient’s quality of life and their dignity,” Marshall said. “It’s a way of respecting people’s autonomy — an important way.” 

Marshall said the bill has all the procedural safeguards in place to ensure the request is voluntary and made by a patient who is predicted to die within six months. The bill would require that the request be made twice within the span of 15 days, be voluntary without influence from outside sources and after the patient has been given information on alternative care options. 

Lois Shepherd, professor of Biomedical Ethics at the School of Medicine, said she is not in favor of the bill, stating that American culture overvalues independence. She added that terminally ill people are often concerned about the issues they could face if they prolonged their life, such as losing autonomy and burdening friends and family.

“I wish we would focus more attention on providing care to people and making people feel like they did not need to shorten their lives in order to avoid some of the things that they are worried about,” Shepherd said. 

According to a 2022 poll by the Wason Center for Civic Leadership, seven out of 10 Virginians support the ability to have a medically assisted death. Since Delegate Kaye Kory introduced the Death With Dignity Act in 2019 — a bill supporting medically assisted death that was not passed — multiple versions of bills to legalize medically-assisted death have been introduced to Virginia legislatures and failed. The current bill was introduced by Senator Ghazala Hashimi (D-Va.) and was the first of its kind to pass in the Virginia Senate. Outside of Virginia, medically-assisted death is currently legal in 10 states, including Oregon, California and Colorado, as well as Washington, D.C.

Despite the bill being split largely along party lines in the State Senate,  with the majority of Democrat senators voting in favor of the bill and most Republican senators opposing it, Shepherd said people should not think of medically-assisted death as a partisan issue. 

“We shouldn’t assume if you’re a liberal, you’re automatically for it, and if you’re a conservative you’re automatically against it,” Shepherd said. “I might characterize it as an issue about which good people can have disagreement.”

The House, which also holds a democratic majority, has referred the bill to the Committee for Courts of Justice for further consideration.


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