In a medical community sharply divided on the issue of assisted suicide, momentum has shifted to the side that embraces the idea — with California at the forefront of the change. Two Golden State doctors with life-threatening illnesses have recently become plaintiffs in a lawsuit aimed at shielding physicians from legal liability “if they prescribe lethal medications to patients who are both terminally ill and mentally competent to decide their fate.”
Changing mores among MDs
For disability-rights advocates like Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, “the marriage of a profit-driven healthcare system and legalized aid in dying sets up dangerous possibilities,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “She warned of a scenario in which insurers might deny or delay life-sustaining treatments and a patient ‘is steered toward assisted suicide.’”
But views among doctors have moved strongly toward accepting illness-driven suicide. A recent nationwide poll conducted by the Medscape Ethics Center showed that 54 percent of respondents agreed that medically-assisted suicide should be permitted — an 8 percent increase in support among American doctors over the past five years.
The numbers showed how sharply and deeply the divide among physicians has become. “Historically, doctors have been some of the most vocal critics of assisted suicide,” The Atlantic recently noted.
“The American Medical Association still says that ‘physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.’ Similarly, the California Medical Association takes the view that helping patients die conflicts with doctors’ commitment to do no harm. ‘It is the physicians’ job to take care of the patient and that is amplified when that patient is most sick,’ said a spokeswoman, Molly Weedn.”
A legislative push
With the shift in medical opinion, political support has also increased. While the doctors’ lawsuit makes its way through the courts, Sacramento Democrats have begun to advance legislation that would go even further. In a letter to state Sens. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and Bill Monning, D-Carmel, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., gave her stamp of approval to Senate Bill 128, the so-called California End of Life Option Act:
“The right to die with dignity is an option that should be available for every chronically suffering terminally ill consenting adult in California. I share your concern that terminally ill California residents currently do not have the option to obtain end-of-life medication if their suffering becomes unbearable. As a result they may well experience terrible pain until their illness has taken their life naturally.”
The bill “would allow mentally competent California residents with less than six months to live obtain physician-prescribed lethal drugs that they’d administer themselves,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “A patient would need two doctors to confirm the illness was terminal. Also required: two oral requests 15 days apart and a written version witnessed by two people. Physicians, pharmacists and healthcare facilities could opt out. Those participating would be protected against lawsuits. Coercing a patient would be a felony.”
SB128 recently passed through the Senate Health Committee, which viewed a video message prepared by the activist Brittany Maynard, who moved to Oregon from California last year in order to end her life in accordance with that state’s assisted-suicide law.
“Before she died, Maynard recorded testimony in favor of passing such a law in California,” Reuters reported. “I am heartbroken that I had to leave behind my home, my community, and my friends in California, but I am dying and I refuse to lose my dignity,” Maynard said in the video. “I refuse to subject myself and my family to purposeless, prolonged pain and suffering at the hands of an incurable disease.”
A bellwether in the making
The assisted-suicide movement has positioned itself well to exploit a potential success in California. In addition to Oregon, Washington and Vermont also legally permit the practice. “Courts in New Mexico and Montana also have ruled that aid in dying is legal, and a suit was also recently filed in New York,” according to The Atlantic.