Does Vermont's death with dignity legislation, signed into law Monday, make it any more likely that California can now move in the same direction?
Yes and no.
There's no active effort under way in California to make it legal for doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients at their request. But Kathryn Tucker, the Compassion & Choices legal director who testified before the Vermont Legislature in support of death with dignity, said she's encouraged by growing support for the idea that dying patients should have the right to avoid needless suffering.
Oregon and Washington established death with dignity by referendum and Montana through judicial action. Vermont is the first state to pass "aid in dying" legislation.
In California, a death with dignity proposition was defeated in 1992. and a legislative attempt failed in 2005.
So why can't a progressive blue state allow residents to decide such a personal matter on their own terms, especially given the compelling argument that expensive and sometimes life-sustaining measures often prolong dying rather than extend life?
In both 1992 and 2005, opposition to aid in dying came from religous groups and some physicians. But in my reporting on aid in dying over the last two years, I've encountered far more support and very little opposition.
"In California, we're taking a look at what the best strategy might be," said Tucker, who didn't rule out another legislative attempt or putting a proposition before voters again.
A third approach, said Tucker, is to win a legal challenge to the very definition of "assisted suicide" in one state, and hope the decision prompts other states to reconsider their own statutes.
Assisting in someone's death is currently a crime in New Mexico. But Tucker is involved in a civil suit there arguing that a dying patient who wants a peaceful death is not technically committing suicide and a doctor who helps facilitate such a death would not be a party to a crime.
Tucker said she's encouraged by polls showing majority support for aid in dying, and by a movement among Hawaii physicians to offer their dying patients more end-of-life choices. There's generally growing support in the United States, she said, while the arguments against aid in dying "remain frozen in time."
A key feature of the Vermont legislation is that a lethal prescription can be granted only after two requests followed by 15-day waiting periods and a second opinion from a doctor regarding the terminal illness. But three years from now, a patient expected to die within six months can get a prescription without waiting after a private consultation with a doctor.
"I think the exciting thing about Vermont is that it starts to move the practice into mainstream medical practice and normalizes it," said Tucker.
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