Former NPR host brings issue of medical aid in dying to TV

Spurred on by the death of her husband, Peabody-award-winning journalist Diane Rehm crosses the country to take an in-depth look at medical aid in dying. WGCU listeners will remember Rehm from her popular morning show on NPR, which ran from 1979 to 2016.

For this program, Rehm speaks to people on all sides of the issue, uncovering the pros and cons, the facts and the misinformation surrounding this controversial practice that is now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia.

The result, “When My Time Comes,” airing April 11 at 8 pm on WGCU WORLD and Sunday, April 25 on WGCU PBS,  is both moving and informative – an eye-opening documentary that is sure to provoke strong reactions and thoughtful conversations among viewers of all ages and backgrounds.

“Medical aid in dying (MAID) is the practice in which a mentally capable, terminally ill adult with less than six months to live has the option to request prescription medication from their doctor they can decide to ingest to die peacefully if their suffering becomes unbearable.” This is the definition provided by Compassion & Choices, a non-profit organization whose mission includes strengthening individual rights and improving conditions for terminally-ill patients in the United States.

Death With Dignity, another MAID advocacy group, explains that “In the U.S., it is the states, not the federal government, that licenses physicians and determines what is and is not legitimate medical practice. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this by ruling, in the case Gonzales v. Oregon,that the federal government overstepped its authority in seeking to punish doctors who prescribed drugs to help terminally ill patients end their lives.”

While there are some variations among the different jurisdictions, Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act is the model for the legal provisions and requirements that apply to patients and physicians. These provisions and requirements typically include:

  • Residency in the jurisdiction
  • A six-month-or-less terminal prognosis from a prescribing doctor who also confirms the patient’s capacity to make their own medical decisions
  • A waiting period, followed by examination by a second consulting doctor, who must confirm the prognosis and capacity to make medical decisions
  • Referral for a psychological exam if either doctor believes the patient’s judgment may be impaired
  • One or more written requests for MAID
  • And the capacity to self-administer the drugs that will end their life.

Variations among jurisdictions sometimes include such things as a requirement to provide information on alternatives such as pain management, hospice care, etc., and a recommendation that the patient advise next of kin of their intentions.

There are various other provisions, such as reporting prescriptions for the lethal medication to the related health authorities; control of medication that is prescribed and received by the patient but never used; guidelines and protections for pharmacists; protection of physicians from criminal prosecution if they adhere to the requirements; and protection of the patient against any impact on their health and life insurance policies.

Typically, legislation regarding MAID will make the distinction between medical aid in dying and suicide, euthanasia, and homicide. The patient’s death certificate will define the cause of death as being the underlying terminal illness, not the lethal medication used to end their life.

                Jurisdictions that have authorized medical aid in dying are: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Hawaii, New Jersey and Maine.

Author: Dayna Harpster