California Legislature Approves Bill Legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide

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The California State Legislature gave final approval to a bill that would allow physician-assisted suicide for patients dying of cancer, according to The New York Times.

The bill was sent to Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday, the final day of a special session, after a vote of 23 to 14 in the State Senate.

If Brown signs the bill, California would join Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Vermont as the fifth state to allow patients access to physician-assisted suicide. More than half the states, as well as Washington D.C., have proposed assisted suicide legislation this year. So far, none have become law.

Several Northern European countries have legalized assisted suicide, including the Netherlands, Belgium, and Sweden. The British Parliament, however, voted down a similar bill on Friday.

Interest in the “aid-in-dying” movement, as supporters prefer to call it, spiked after San Francisco native Brittany Maynard gave it a public face. Maynard, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, drew national attention last year after moving to Oregon to end her life. Her family has been involved in the movement and celebrated at the Capital in Sacramento after the bill was approved.

Since Maynard’s death, organizations like Death With Dignity have been lobbying for assisted suicide legislation. Leaders of Death With Dignity told The Times they hope the California bill will be a turning point.

“If it becomes law in California, that’s going to be very, very significant nationally,” said George Eighmey, vice president of Death With Dignity.

The California Legislature took the Oregon law as its model but made a few modifications. The End of Life Option Act would expire after 10 years and require reapproval. In addition, practitioners would be required to consult with patients privately in an effort to limit coercion. There is concern in the medical community with low-income patients who would feel pressured by family members to consider assisted suicide.

“As soon as this is introduced, it immediately becomes the cheapest and most expedient way to deal with complicated end-of-life situations,” said Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, director of the medical ethics program at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine.

“You’re not seeing support from the underinsured and economically marginalized. Those people want access to better healthcare.”

The bill, if signed, would triple access to assisted suicide across the country, according to the Times. Brown has been silent about his position, although he did criticize the decision to bring the bill to a special session after it failed earlier this year.

Opinion, both nationally and within the medical community, began to shift after Maynard’s death. A Gallup poll this year shows that nearly 70 percent of Americans support physician-assisted suicide, an increase in 10 percentage points from last year. The California Medical Association, which has taken a firm stance against physician-assisted suicide for years, adopted a neutral position.

The focus now shifts to Brown who has until Oct. 11 to sign any bills approved in the special session. Members of the Death With Dignity movement are hopeful but Brown, a Catholic, has partnered with the Catholic Church to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical.

“He’s not going to make this decision based on political pressures,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “This is a guy who quotes philosophers at cocktail parties.”

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