The California Senate approved by a 23-14 vote June 4 a measure to legalize physician-assisted suicide, much to the disappointment of a large coalition of disability rights activists strongly opposed to the measure.
The bill, SB 128, received a major boost in mid-May when the California Medical Association dropped its opposition, becoming the first state medical association to do so.
The bill, known as the End of Life Option Act, would allow physicians to prescribe lethal medications to “competent” patients diagnosed as “terminally ill,” meaning they will die within six months.
Similar to legislation first passed in Oregon, and since followed in Washington and Vermont, physicians would have to receive a second opinion as to the question of the patient’s terminal illness. A 15-day waiting period is also required after the patient requests the lethal prescription.
At the forefront of the debate is California Against Assisted Suicide, which describes itself as a coalition of disability rights, health care, civil rights and patient advocacy organizations that oppose physician-assisted suicide.
As CAAS sees it, if assisted suicide becomes legal, America’s profit-driven health care system will incentivize doctors to provide lethal prescriptions, rather than provide more costly, life saving treatment.
Likewise, CAAS argues that people with disabilities face special risks from assisted suicide laws, especially in the context of a health care profession that has traditionally devalued their lives in comparison to the general population. For CAAS, the law’s protections provide insufficient protection, and terms such as “competent” and “terminally ill” are subjective and prone to abuse.
Most of the nation’s major disability rights groups have joined CAAS, including ADAPT, Not Dead Yet, the National Council on Disability, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, TASH, the Disability Rights Education Fund and the ARC.
The California measure, though introduced many times in the past, gained momentum in fall 2014 from the debate surrounding Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal cancer whose video describing why she was choosing to end her life made made national headlines in fall 2014.
In the video, Maynard, a California resident, urged state lawmakers to legalize a physician-assisted suicide law. Prior to ending her life, which she did in Oregon, where the procedure is legal, Maynard met with Governor Jerry Brown to advocate for the measure. Maynard’s husband and mother appeared when the bill was introduced, as well as at subsequent Senate hearings.
The bill now moves to the California Assembly, where its prospects are unclear, according to the Los Angeles Times. Gov. Brown has also not yet taken a public position on the measure.