Although 70% of Californians support physician-assisted suicide, it remains illegal in this state. Despite a remarkably successful 20-year-old law in Oregon that set up a process for what that state calls “death with dignity,” the Legislature in California has not introduced a bill on the subject since 2007. Before that, lawmakers tried for three years in a row with virtually identical bills and all failed.
Then, in October 2014, Brittany Maynard, an articulate young Californian, brought the issue front and center with her anguishing tale: She had moved to Oregon so that she could legally end her life before her aggressive brain cancer could cause debilitating pain and seizures, and rob her of cognitive function. She died in early November by her own hand.
Maynard’s plight aroused public sympathy and renewed frustration with the fact that terminally ill patients in all but three states are denied the right to make such important and personal medical decisions. Several California legislators were, in turn, emboldened to try again.
The new bill, to be introduced Tuesday by state Sens. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) and Lois Wolk (D-Davis), closely follows the Oregon law. It would allow a person with a terminal disease and a prognosis of death within six months to obtain a physician’s prescription for a lethal dose of medication. Two doctors would have to independently agree that requesting patients meet a long list of criteria, including being mentally competent and able to take the medication without help. Doctors would not administer the drugs.
Doctors who aren’t comfortable with the process would not be required to write the fatal prescriptions. And there would be a 15-day waiting period between the doctors’ agreement and the issuance of a prescription to prevent patients from acting impulsively.
Oregon has given California more than a template for a carefully written law; its years of experience are reassuring. Fewer than 800 people have exercised the right to die in Oregon; the state’s annual reports show no signs that the law has been abused. There were a few minor administrative violations, largely involving paperwork. No lawsuits have been filed after the fact, according to the California bill’s authors. People have not been encouraged by health insurance companies to opt for death over costly life-extending treatments, according to state reports, nor have greedy or hostile family members pressured them into killing themselves.
The Roman Catholic Church and other groups will almost certainly have strong objections to such a law, but their moral codes should not be imposed on those with different beliefs.
There are details in the bill that may need to be amended, but overall this is an important piece of legislation that should become law. Californians should have the ability to determine their personal medical destinies.
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