California is now one step closer to legalising assisted suicide after a bill passed in the State Senate by a vote of 23 to 14 on Thursday evening. SB-128 now moves to the State Assembly (the lower house). Governor Jerry Brown, who once trained as a Jesuit priest, has given no indication of how he will vote.
It is hard to tell what the outcome will be. Similar measures failed in 2005 and 2007. Opponents of the bill are determined to lobby hard against it. “This bill ... tells people with disabilities who face a terminal diagnosis, that may well prove inaccurate, that there is no dignity in our lives,” said Marilyn Golden of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. “Assisted suicide is dangerous, and we are going to bring that message loud and clear to every member of the state Assembly and the governor.”
The 90-minute debate before the vote was deeply emotional. The author of the bill, Senator Lois Wolk told the Senate: “I was 17 when my vibrant young mother ended a three-year struggle with metastatic cancer, and it was frankly brutal. “Her suffering was prolonged and unbearable – for her, certainly, and also for her family,” she said. “It does not have to be this way.” Senator Ted Gaines, on the other hand, argued that “Doctors should kill disease. They should kill pain. They should not kill their patients.”
The California bill is modelled on Oregon’s statute. Two doctors must confirm that a patient has six months or less to live and his mental competence. He must make two verbal requests to a doctor for help in dying in the presence of witnesses, at least 15 days apart. The medication must be self-administered. There will be penalties for pressuring a patient to make a request or for forging a request.
Two factors almost certainly influenced the vote. California resident Brittany Maynard moved to Oregon last year in order to take her life legally. Videos of the 29-year-old’s plea for a change in the law – financed largely by Compassion & Choices, America’s leading assisted suicide lobby group – went viral.
And the California Medical Association has dropped its long-standing opposition to assisted suicide. “The decision to participate in the End of Life Option Act is a very personal one between a doctor and their patient, which is why CMA has removed policy that outright objects to physicians aiding terminally ill patients in end of life options,” said the CMA President.
The CMA is the first state medical association in the nation to change its stance on physician aid in dying. (Oregon’s medical association never opposed it.) Since 1987, the CMA opposed any law that would require a physician to aid in the death of a patient. In the 1990s, it also condemned voluntary active euthanasia by physicians and opposed physician-assisted suicide clinics. However, a CMA resolution to remain open to the multiple views and perspectives of various participants was also passed during that time, leaving the door open to the latest decision.
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