California’s assisted suicide law leaves some doctors uneasy

On June 9, California will become the third state to legally allow doctors to write life-ending prescriptions for patients who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Gregory Bull/AP
Terry Petrovich walks her dog on a trail behind her home, in Jamul, Calif. Ms. Petrovich, who was diagnosed in 2012 with a terminal illness, has asked her physician about an assisted death. A new law in California that enables physicians to administer lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients goes into effect June 9.

Some California physicians are struggling with whether they will be willing to administer a lethal dose of drugs to terminally ill patients when a hard-won California law allowing such actions comes into effect on June 9.

The Golden State passed the law in October last year, but when confronted by patients asking whether they would be willing act in the event their condition worsened to a point of apparent hopelessness, some physicians say that while they recognize growing support for assisted suicide, the ethics of their medical education have not prepared them to end a patient's life.

"I think everyone has that personal, ethical dilemma because we're not really taught in medical school to cause someone's death, and yet we certainly think society is moving toward wanting the option," Daniel Mirda of the Association of Northern California Oncologists told the Associated Press.

The passage of the bill was hard-fought with many medical professionals and terminally ill patients working hard to ensure its success, often after having witnessed first-hand the prolonged suffering of a relative with a terminal diagnosis, as the Christian Science Monitor's Harry Brunius wrote last year. Furthermore, the high cost of health care in the United States and the patchy availability of palliative care around the nation gave extra force to the case for such laws.

There are, however, concerns from some in the medical field that such a law will lead to premature decisions, misdiagnoses, and less support for palliative care, which often includes the sedation to relieve suffering.

The Alliance of Catholic Hospitals has said its hospitals won't issue life-ending prescriptions because that would go against the church's stance on assisted suicide. At the same time the church can't stop affiliated physicians from talking about it or referring patients to institutions that are willing to dispense the drugs.

California is considered a testing ground for whether the physician-assisted suicide could spread nationwide. States that already have such laws – Oregon, Washington, and Vermont – are home to predominantly wealthy, white demographics. California's economic and demographic diversity will give the new law a stress test, such as whether economic considerations may pressure a family to choose euthanasia for a loved one.

It is not yet clear how soon the first prescription will be written. Under the law, patients have to be declared by their physician to have six months or less to live, make two verbal requests within 15 days of each other, and submit a request in writing.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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