As polls have shown consistently, a strong majority of Californians believe that terminally ill people should be able to end their lives peacefully and without pain when death is near. The state's residents have waited too long; they have watched for nearly 20 years as a right-to-die law in Oregon has granted comfort to the fewer than 800 people who chose that path. During that time, dying people in three additional states have gained that option.
Yet a bill to provide the same choice to Californians is now held up in the Senate Appropriations Committee. That won't do. Even the California Medical Assn., which was a formidable foe of similar bills over the last decade, dropped its opposition to the current legislation this week. The shift reflects a more open-minded attitude in the doctors organization that is in keeping with broader societal acceptance, and a willingness among some physicians to help people avoid the suffering that accompanies the final months of some illnesses. The Senate needs to move this bill along; the right to make one's own, final medical decisions should be obvious by now.
SB 128, authored by Sens. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and Bill Monning (D-Carmel), would allow — but not require — doctors to provide lethal doses of drugs to patients with less than six months to live who want to hasten their deaths. It contains multiple safeguards to ensure that patients are of sound mind and are able not only to make this decision for themselves but also to carry it out. Doctors would not administer the medications; patients would have to be able to take that step themselves.
Opponents, including some disability-rights groups, raise concerns that friends or family might persuade or coerce a dying person to seek a lethal prescription in order to cut down on medical expenses or to leave a larger inheritance. Another worry has been that insurance companies might attempt to save money by refusing to cover life-prolonging medical procedures while paying for the drugs that would allow people to kill themselves. But the law in Oregon has not been abused in any of these ways, according to the state's annual reports, and the Wolk bill has been amended to provide additional protections.
No matter how the bill might be changed, the California Catholic Conference probably would continue to oppose it. But religious doctrine should not be allowed to limit the rights of those who believe differently.
The California Medical Assn.'s change in position is an acknowledgment that attitudes have evolved, including among many of its members. The organization explained its change of heart by saying that this is a private medical decision between patient and doctor. Exactly.