For the first time in close to a decade, the California Legislature is considering a bill that would grant terminally ill patients the right to seek a prescription from a physician for a lethal dose of medicine, giving them the ability to die peacefully rather than suffer severe mental anguish or unbearable physical pain. It’s a good, carefully written bill modeled on Oregon’s successful 20-year-old “death with dignity” law, and it deserves to pass.
But just as the Legislature is beginning to consider the bill, a lawsuit has been brought in an effort to move the process along more quickly, contending that terminally ill Californians already have an inherent right to end their own lives.
This is a matter that would be better resolved by legislation than by the courts.
SB 128, introduced last month by Sens. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and Bill Monning (D-Carmel), would do much more than merely authorize doctors to provide life-ending prescriptions to terminally ill patients. Drawing on Oregon’s law, it would require, among other things, determinations by two doctors that the patient is expected to die within six months. The doctors would have to certify that the patient is mentally competent and can take the medicine without help and meets a long list of other criteria. There would be a 15-day waiting period between the doctors’ agreement and the issuing of the prescription. Also written in are safeguards against coercion and a requirement that the state track such cases, to help gauge whether the law is working properly and how often it is being used.
If the lawsuit, filed last week in San Francisco County Superior Court, is successful, dying patients would mostly likely not have all those protections. The lawsuit merely contends that state laws prohibiting assistance in committing suicide do not apply to the terminally ill because that act doesn’t constitute suicide. Wording is a major issue in the right-to-die movement, which rejects the stigma traditionally attached to suicide. Indeed, SB 128 would require death certificates to list the underlying illness as the cause of death, with no mention that the terminally ill person had ended his or her own life before the disease did so.
That’s going a little too far; death certificates should reflect the true cause of death. On the other hand, it is certainly true that a dying person’s decision to determine the timing and manner of death should carry no legal or practical stigma, such as refusal of life insurance benefits to survivors. SB 128 would guarantee that.
Ideally, the lawsuit will spur lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown to support SB 128, which would give dying patients the rights that 70% of Californians believe they should have.