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Bill to allow physician-assisted suicide sparks discourse in General Assembly

Opponents of assisted suicide held a press conference Wednesday to disavow legislation that would allow patients with terminal illnesses to request a life-ending substance from a physician. Supporters of the proposal say the choice to end one’s own life is a human right, while speakers at the event said allowing the practice would be unethical. 

Capital News Service

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By Andrew Ringle

Opponents of assisted suicide held a press conference Wednesday to reject legislation allowing patients with terminal conditions to request a life-ending substance from a physician.

While supporters of the proposal say the choice to end one’s own life is a human right, speakers at the event called the practice unethical.

“Suicide is incredibly sad,” said Dr. Mary Lopez during the press event held at the Pocahontas Building. “As a nation, we do not want to see our people killing themselves, unless you’re one of those who’s so passionate we fight for bills to allow doctors and others to prescribe deadly drugs to their patients.”

Lopez is the executive director of the Independence Empowerment Center, a nonprofit dedicated to providing options for people with disabilities. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992, and she spoke with others in opposition to House Bill 1649. 

The bill, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church, would allow adults with terminal conditions that will result in death within six months to request from a health care provider a self-administered, controlled substance for the purpose of ending the patient’s life. Such a request would need to be made twice orally by the patient, along with a statement signed by the patient and a witness.

Kristen Hanson, a community relations advocate for Patients’ Rights Action Fund, spoke first.. Her organization is a nonprofit which aims to “oppose efforts to make suicide a legal medical treatment option,” according to the group’s website.

She said her husband, J.J., lived three and a half years after doctors diagnosed him with terminal brain cancer. If assisted suicide had been legal at the time of J.J.’s diagnosis, Hanson said her husband could have accessed a life-ending substance “during his darkest days.”

“Thankfully, J.J. didn’t end his life,” Hanson said in her statement. “But if he had suicide pills with him, he said he might have taken them. And you can’t undo that. There’s no going back.”

Hanson said allowing suicide as a medical treatment could subject families to government pressure and the decisions of insurance companies, and that the state should improve other health care options instead.

Dr. Tom Eppes, a 40-year family practitioner from Lynchburg, said pain medication and hospice care are good alternatives. He spoke on behalf of the Medical Society of Virginia, of which he is a former president.

Eppes criticized the bill, saying assisted suicides are “impossible to study” and not always successful. He said it “stretches credulity” to ask that physicians and nurse practitioners, as the bill proposes, be able to make such a judgement.

“Predicting death is not easy,” Eppes said. “Six months to live would include untreated Type 1 diabetes.”

He also criticized a policy outlined in the bill that would prohibit death certificates for patients who receive the treatment from listing suicide or homicide as the cause of death, saying it would allow “false reporting.”

“Assisted suicide is like cut flowers,” Eppes said. “They look beautiful on the base, but they wither because they have no roots. Physicians need a code of ethics like the original one that was written 2,500 years ago that includes a promise not to purposely take the life of the patient.”

Kate Vasiloff attended the press conference as a volunteer for Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group dedicated to educating the public about end-of-life options.

Vasiloff said she “absolutely” believes the choice to take one’s own life is a human right. She referenced her father, who she said had Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which attacks motor neurons and cells that control muscles. What kept him up at night, she said, was how the disease was going to end.

ALS received national attention when the “ice bucket challenge” went viral in 2014. Vasiloff said that trend, which involved pouring ice on one’s self to promote awareness for the disease, didn’t show people the reality of ALS.

“You either asphyxiate from not being able to swallow properly, you suffocate because your lungs stop working, or you starve to death because the feeding tube has to be removed.”

She agrees with the policies outlined in HB 1649 because the bill is backed by advocates in the medical community and because similar legislation has found success in Oregon and other states.

“I think we owe people who serve our country and our families and our communities a better option,” Vasiloff said. “If they want to have one sliver of control over a situation where they’ve been dealt the worst hand possible, I don’t think that it’s our businesses to stand in the way of that.”

Sara Stern said her husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and he wished to receive a life-ending treatment while in hospice care. But because his caretakers were against the idea, Stern said her husband opted to voluntarily stop eating and drinking.

Stern watched as her husband died of thirst over the course of two weeks. After this, she said she wanted to advocate for end-of-life options like that in the House proposal.

“My promise to him was to take up this cause,” Stern said, “so that other people would not have to elect that same route if that was their strong wish.”

HB 1649 is currently in the Courts of Justice Committee, which next meets Friday.

Kory did not respond to multiple requests for further comment on the proposal.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Downtown

Bills advance to expand in-state tuition regardless of citizenship status

The state Senate and the House have advanced bills to make students living in the U.S. without documentation eligible for in-state tuition.

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The state Senate and the House have advanced bills to make students living in the U.S. without documentation eligible for in-state tuition.

SB 935, introduced by Democratic Sens. Jennifer Boysko and Ghazala Hashmi, would require a student to provide proof of filed taxes to be eligible for in-state tuition. A student also must have attended high school in Virginia for at least two years, been homeschooled in the state or have passed a high school equivalency exam prior to enrolling in a college. The bill reported out of the House appropriations committee Wednesday and heads to the floor for a vote.

Submitting income tax returns would be a challenge for students straight out of high school who have not worked or filed taxes before, according to Jorge Figueredo, executive director of Edu-Futuro, a nonprofit that seeks to empower immigrant youth and their families.

HB 1547, introduced by Del. Alfonso Lopez, applies the same provisions as SB 935, except the requirement to file proof of filed taxes. The bill is currently in the Senate Health and Education committee.

Immigrant rights advocates have openly supported these two bills. Figueredo said he is “thrilled” to see the bill advance.

“This is something that makes a lot of sense. It’s something where we don’t want to have a group of people to get to a point that they cannot reach their highest potential,” Figueredo said.

Attorney General Mark Herring announced in 2014 that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students would be eligible for in-state tuition. He said Maryland saw an increase in graduation rates after allowing students without documentation to access in-state tuition rates. Maryland officials believe this led less students to drop out of high school because they saw realistic options for continuing education, according to Herring.

There is uncertainty about the future of the DACA program. A study by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis stated that uncertainty creates a risk for students enrolled in Virginia colleges and universities, who fear they could lose DACA status and access to in-state tuition rates. The institute, which studies issues affecting low-to-moderate income residents, recommended that lawmakers could mitigate the potential impact of that loss by expanding in-state tuition access to Virginia residents regardless of immigration status. The institute said that by doing so the state would also provide more affordable access to colleges for residents whose immigration status does not otherwise fall into the categories currently required for in-state tuition.

Figueredo said that allowing these students to apply for in-state tuition would create more opportunities for undocumented students to become professionals, something that would benefit all of Virginia.

High school graduates in Virginia earn about $35,000 on average compared to people with a bachelor’s degree who earn about $65,000 a year, according to The Commonwealth Institute.

“A person that has a higher level of education in comparison to a person that has only a high school diploma, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars that are not captured in the form of taxes, so that’s a direct benefit right there,” Figueredo said.

Katherine Amaya is a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College. Her family emigrated from El Salvador when she was 8 years old. Amaya said she pays out-of-state tuition rates as an undocumented student, about $6,000 per semester, compared to classmates who pay about $2,000 for in-state tuition per semester.

Amaya said she was on the honor roll throughout high school and her first semester in college. She said she was able to apply for scholarships for undocumented students but it was a competitive process. She was awarded a few scholarships and said she was able to use that money for her first semester of college but is afraid she won’t get as much help in the future.

Amaya said she had many friends in high school that were also having a hard time paying for college or university because they were also undocumented and did not qualify for in-state tuition.

“A lot of them, they couldn’t even afford going to community college, so they just dropped out and started working,” Amaya said. “It’s sad, you know, that they don’t have the money or the help to keep going to school.”

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Downtown

Bill banning handheld cellphone use while driving clears House, Senate

The state Senate voted Tuesday in favor of a bill that would prohibit holding a personal communications device while driving a motor vehicle.

Capital News Service

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By Andrew Ringle

The state Senate voted Tuesday in favor of a bill that would prohibit holding a phone while driving a motor vehicle on Virginia roadways and which implements a penalty for the traffic violation.

House Bill 874 will head to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, who has voiced support for prohibiting the use of handheld cellphones while driving. The measure, sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would go into effect at the start of 2021.

“I’m happy that HB874 passed 29-9 in the Senate,” Bourne said in an email. “HB874 will make our roadways safer for all Virginians by prohibiting drivers from holding a cell phone while driving a motor vehicle.”

The House of Delegates approved the bill Feb. 5 with a 72-24 vote after incorporating four bills with similar proposals. Violations of the measures in HB 874 would result in a fine of $125 for the first offense and $250 for subsequent offenses. If a violation occurs in a highway work zone, there would be a mandatory fee of $250.

Bourne said the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, of which he is a member, supports making Virginia roadways safer without risking “disparate application of law.”

“We were happy to work with Drive Smart Virginia to improve the legislation to ensure that the new law is applied fairly and equitably,” Bourne said.

Hands-free driving garners bicameral and bipartisan support, according to Brantley Tyndall, director of outreach for Bike Walk RVA. He said the defeat of previous bills with similar measures in past years was deflating, but that Bourne’s latest proposal reworked the language to make it successful.

“Bike Walk RVA is happy to see leadership from our area, namely chief patron Delegate Jeff Bourne, choosing to lead this issue on the House side with his bill HB 874,” Tyndall said in an email.

Tyndall called Bourne’s bill a “commonsense safety measure” and said he was glad to see support for the bill from old and new leadership in the General Assembly.

“We can all feel a part of saving dozens or hundreds of lives over the next few years, including the one out of every six traffic fatalities that is a person walking or biking,” Tyndall said.

Current law prohibits reading or typing messages on a personal communications device while driving. However, holding such a device is legal, except while driving in a work zone.

The bill would not apply to emergency vehicle drivers, such as police officers and firefighters, nor employees of the Department of Transportation while performing official duties. It would also exempt drivers who are parked legally or at a full stop.

Last fall, Richmond City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to ban using mobile devices while driving. With a signature from Northam, HB 874 would make the same policy statewide law.

Senate Bill 932 proposed adding school zones to the list of areas where holding a phone while driving is prohibited, which is more limited than HB 874’s proposal. SB 932 failed to advance from a House subcommittee on Monday.

Richmond Police Chief Will Smith said during a press conference in January that his department supports HB 874 and that anyone with children shouldn’t be surprised by the proposal.

“One of the very first things that we all talk about with our kids is, ‘make sure that you leave your phone out of your hand and don’t text, don’t call until you get to your destination,’” Smith said. “Yet we, as an adult society, tend not to obey our own advice.”

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Arts & Entertainment

The world is coming to Richmond for the Menuhin Competition – the “Olympics of Violin” – this May

The world is coming to Richmond from May 14-24, 2020 for the Menuhin Competition, the world’s leading international competition for young violinists. This Competition, called the “Olympics of the Violin,” is held every two years in different cities around the world.

RVAHub Staff

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The world is coming to Richmond from May 14-24, 2020 for the Menuhin Competition, the world’s leading international competition for young violinists. This Competition, called the “Olympics of the Violin,” is held every two years in different cities around the world. Richmond is set to be the host city in 2020—only the second time that the Competition has been held in the U.S.

The Menuhin Competition Richmond 2020 will showcase the exceptional talents of 44 competitors: 22 Juniors ages 15 and under, and 22 Seniors from ages 15-21. A record 321 candidates from 32 countries and five continents applied by the Oct. 31 deadline, and the 44 global competitors were announced in January. One of the competitors is from Virginia, Kayleigh Kim.

For 11 days in May, Richmond will be transformed into a celebratory festival of music with competitions, performances, master classes and concerts in several music genres throughout the region. Co-hosts are the Richmond Symphony, the City of Richmond, the University of Richmond, VCU and VPM.

The first round events at Camp Concert Hall at the University of Richmond are free to the public, but a ticket is required for admission and can be requested here. Semi-final rounds will be held at the W.E. Singleton Center at VCU, and final rounds will be held at the Dominion Energy Center downtown.

For more information about the Menuhin Competition Richmond 2020, including dates, times, venues and tickets for all of the events, visit the website.

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