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Virginia considers allowing doctors to help people with terminal illnesses to die

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Before we start our next story, a warning - this piece contains some discussion of suicide. It's been 20 years since Oregon voters allowed people with terminal illnesses to end their own lives with the help of a doctor. Since then, nine other states and Washington, D.C., have approved their own laws. And more than a dozen state legislatures are considering similar bills. That includes Virginia, where the issue is deeply personal for some residents. Ben Paviour, with member station VPM, has more.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: In 2022, Barbara Green got news no one wants to hear. She had pancreatic cancer and likely less than a year left to live.

BARBARA GREEN: It takes you a while to come down off that terror.

PAVIOUR: The 79-year-old has defied the odds, but she says she's pragmatic about what comes next.

GREEN: I'm told it's a fatal disease. There's no cure for pancreatic cancer. It will kill me at some point.

PAVIOUR: In nearly a dozen states, patients like Green can get lethal drugs from a doctor. It's an option for mentally capable patients who've been given a prognosis of six months or less to live. Green's calling Virginia lawmakers as they debate bills that would add the option in the commonwealth.

GREEN: If I'm in charge of my body through my whole life, and I can refuse chemotherapy or authorize it, why can't I decide how my death is going to occur?

PAVIOUR: The bills are part of a nationwide push from the advocacy group Compassion and Choices. The group's CEO, Kim Callinan, says states are recognizing the popularity of the option as boomers age.

KIM CALLINAN: Death is not partisan. And when you look at polling data, Democrats, Republicans, independents, libertarians - all of them are supportive of this option.

PAVIOUR: Callinan is careful to refer to the choice as medical aid in dying, not assisted suicide.

CALLINAN: When you talk to people who are choosing this option, they get deeply, deeply offended if you refer to it as assisted suicide. Most of them desperately want to live, but unfortunately, a disease is taking their life, and they can't.

PAVIOUR: Critics say rhetoric like aid in dying is a euphemism that hides ethical issues. A range of groups oppose the bills, including some religious groups, disability rights advocates and the American Medical Association. Olivia Gans Turner is with the Virginia Society for Human Life.

OLIVIA GANS TURNER: If you are going to die, you're going to die. Let's use that time in a way that assists you to be lifted up emotionally, physically and those around you.

PAVIOUR: Turner says allowing a person to take the medication has ripple effects on loved ones and communities.

TURNER: So it's much bigger than the individual, and it's much more complicated than just, I want to have control. What does that mean for our entire society?

PAVIOUR: The debate has hit home for Virginia Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton. Last year, the 55-year-old was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare, terminal illness she describes as Parkinson's on steroids. At a press conference last month, Wexton's friend, State Senator Jennifer Boysko, read a letter from Wexton describing the disease.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER BOYSKO: (Reading) It has robbed me, my family and the many people in my life who I love and who love me (crying) so very much. But if this bill becomes law in Virginia, it would return the control over when and where and how our stories end to us.

PAVIOUR: It's an argument that has, so far, won over Virginia Democrats who control the state legislature. If the bill fails in Virginia, patients like Wexton may have options, at least if they can travel. Last year, the governors of Oregon and Vermont signed laws allowing people to access the medication, even if they live in a different state.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond.

PFEIFFER: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ben Paviour