Is California ready for a right-to-die law?

The California Senate on Friday passed a measure that would allow doctors to end the lives of terminally ill patients. It now awaits the governor's signature – or veto.

Carl Costas/AP
Debbie Ziegler, mother of Brittany Maynard, speaks to the media after the passage of legislation, which would allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives, at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Sept. 11, 2015. The measure to allow doctors to prescribe life-ending medication succeeded on its second attempt after the heavily publicized case of Ms. Maynard, a woman with brain cancer who moved to Oregon to legally take her life.

California Governor Jerry Brown faces a big decision.

The state Senate on Friday approved a controversial bill that would allow doctors to legally end the lives of terminally ill patients, sending it to the governor for approval or veto. Governor Brown, a Catholic and former Jesuit seminary student, has not yet articulated his position on the measure, but the bill’s passage reflects a change in attitudes toward the traditionally divisive question of physician-assisted suicide.

"By an overwhelming majority across all groups – religious, ethnic, geographic, no matter what age or gender – Californians want us to act to eliminate the needless pain and prolonged suffering of those who are dying," State Sen. Lois Wolk (D) of Davis said shortly before state lawmakers voted 23 to 14 to pass the bill, reported the San Jose Mercury News.

As of July 2014, a poll of California voters found that more than two-thirds would approve giving "a terminally ill person, who is mentally competent, the right to request and receive a prescription for life-ending medication from a physician." The trend holds true nationally: 68 percent of Americans said doctors should be allowed to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide, according to a Gallup poll conducted in May.

But it wasn’t always that way. Through the last decade, support for doctor-assisted suicide has stayed mostly below 60 percent, with the divide running along party lines.

"Possibly in response to the accusations of 'death panels' that arose during the acrimonious debate surrounding passage of the Affordable Care Act, support dropped to bare-majority levels throughout much of President Barack Obama's first term," Gallup reported. "Public support for euthanasia fell to a low of 51 percent in 2013, before rebounding to 58 percent last year."

A big part of the shift in attitudes, experts say, is due to Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old Californian whose public decision to end her life with physician-prescribed barbiturates captured the attention of millions of Americans last fall. As The Christian Science Monitor reported:

Maynard was a very publicly sympathetic figure on behalf of the right-to-die advocates, says Charles Camosy, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University in New York. Her high-profile choice "does give new life to the pro-assisted suicide movements," he notes.  

Following Ms. Maynard’s death, at least four states and the District of Columbia introduced bills that would authorize the practice.

Even as attitudes change, however, lawmakers are slow to act. While more than a dozen states had bills pending in state legislatures coming into 2015, a number of them never made it through this year’s legislative session, according to the Death with Dignity National Center in Portland, Ore.

Oregon, Washington, and Vermont remain the only states that legally allow doctor-assisted suicide.

Most of those who choose to die say they most fear losing their autonomy and dignity, and not being able to engage in life’s enjoyable activities, according to annual reports out of Oregon.

Critics argue that what defines “terminally ill” can vary with the physician. 

"People with terminal conditions are people with disabilities," Diane Coleman, president and CEO of Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group based in Rochester, N.Y. told the Monitor in February. "And there isn’t really all that bright of a line in most cases between someone who is and isn’t terminal. It’s all about a prediction that a doctor makes six months out – which is notoriously unreliable."

Religious groups also remain opposed. Pope Francis, who has been known to take softer stances than his predecessors on traditionally divisive issues, has denounced the right-to-die movement, saying it's a "false sense of compassion" to consider euthanasia an act of dignity when it's a sin against God.

Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, a prominent opponent of the new legislation, wrote an open letter to the state Assembly Committee on Health in June:

"We cannot allow California to become a place where we respond to human suffering by simply making it easier for people to kill themselves," he wrote. He cited a case in Oregon where an insurance company refused to pay for cancer treatment but said they would pay for suicide pills. "In a for-profit health care system driven by financial concerns, doctor-assisted suicide will not be a 'choice' for minorities, the poor and those without health care. It will become their only 'option.' "

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