Delaware’s Death with Dignity/End of Life Options/Physician-Assisted Suicide Debate Continues with House Bill 140

Legislative HallRepresentative Paul Baumbach yesterday re-introduced his “End of Life Options” legislation as House Bill 140. This marks the third iteration of the bill, which began as House Bill 150 “Death with Dignity” in 2015, which was re-filed in 2017 as House Bill 160 “End of Life Options.” While there have been tweaks along the way, the major fundamentals have remained the same – a process for a patient expected to die within six months to self-administer medications to end their life. The question now is if there are enough new “yes” votes amongst the fifteen new legislators to clear a chamber, and maybe even move the bill all the way to Governor Carney.

Each new filing has moved the bill a little further towards becoming law. In 2015, Rep. Baumbach was the only bill sponsor in either chamber; the bill was last tabled in House Health Committee after a hearing. There it stayed until it was removed from the books along with every other bill that failed to make it through the process to then-Governor Markell’s signature before the election.

In 2017, Rep. Baumbach won re-election and re-filed the bill, with some adjustments, and was joined by two House colleagues, Rep. Earl Jaques and Rep. Bryon Short, as well as three Senators, Sen. Henry as the Senate prime and Sens. Hansen and Sokola joining as well. Unlike its predecessor, House Bill 160 did come out of committee. Although committee votes are not publicly-recorded by member, the vote tally itself is interesting: one favorable, five on its merits, and two unfavorable. There were fourteen members of the committee, so eight votes were needed, and eight votes it received, with two making the unusual move of voting to release unfavorably, to allow the bill to reach the floor for a debate.

The bill then made two house agendas, but the bill was ultimately not worked either time it did so, as per the sponsor’s requests to the floor leader: a signal that the sponsor did not have the twenty-one votes necessary for passage. Likely the sponsor did not want the bill to fail on the floor, putting colleagues’ votes on the record and therefore harder to change to his needed “yes” votes in the future.

The 2018 election brought nearly-unprecedented turnover in both chambers, with many retirements and a handful of upsets. Among the legislators not returning were two on the last iteration of the bill, Rep. Bryon Short and Sen. Henry, both by retirement. Additionally, the policy landscape changed when neighboring New Jersey signed legislation allowing the practice just next door.

Despite the losses of sponsors between sessions, House Bill 140 sports an increase from six to seven sponsors. Joining Rep. Baumbach and Sens. Sokola and Hansen are a handful of House members, all new to the bill: Reps. Seigfried, Brady, Kowalko, and Osienski. Interestingly, Rep. Jaques has, at-filing, declined to join the latest iteration of the bill. Other than Rep. Seigfried, a newly-elected member, three of the four new members to join the bill are among the more experienced in the chamber, serving multiple terms.

Looking to its first step that will be taken to advance the legislation on May 8th, the House Health Committee has decreased from fourteen to twelve members. Of those twelve members, only two are on the bill: Baumbach and Seigfried. Interestingly, half of the members are freshman.

Undoubtedly the future of the legislation will be heavily signaled by the committee vote on Wednesday, May 8th. If there is heavy support, not just  another unfavorable release, by freshmen (over objection from much of the medical, faith, and disability communities who will not stand idly by in the interim; and Governor Carney’s signal that it’s a line “I’m just not comfortable crossing”), there’s a possibility that Rep. Baumbach has found his twenty-one votes to send the bill to the Senate. Stay tuned to see whether this proposal will keep its forward momentum as the legislative session clock runs down to the June 30 deadline.