Advocates for aid-in-dying legislation are hoping the passage of a new law in California will bolster efforts across the country to give people with terminal illnesses the option to end their suffering on their own terms.
Laws in five states — California, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington — allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults to request a prescription for life-ending medication that the patient can administer on his or her own.
A similar bill has failed three years in a row in Connecticut. This year’s attempt, which never made it out of committee, would have given terminally ill patients, with less than six months to live, the option to ask their attending physicians twice, at least 15 days apart, for medication that would end their lives.
Tim Appleton, the Connecticut campaign manager for the national organization Compassion & Choices, credited the successful passage of the California legislation to “first-person storytellers” whose lives, and deaths, represent what’s at stake.
Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old from California with terminal brain cancer, brought attention to the issue when she moved to Oregon to follow its death-with-dignity law to its ultimate conclusion. She did so on Nov. 1, 2014.
“When someone like Brittany Maynard is forced to move from California to access aid in dying when she’s terminally ill, that’s what’s at stake in California. It’s what’s at stake here in Connecticut,” Appleton said.
Right now, the nearest state with an aid in dying law is Vermont. Massachusetts held a 2012 referendum asking voters if state-licensed physicians should be allowed to prescribe medication to a terminally ill patient to end the patient’s life. Voters rejected the measure 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent.
A Quinnipiac University poll in March found Connecticut voters support legislation that would allow a doctor to prescribe lethal drugs to help terminally ill patients end their own lives by a 63-31 percent margin. Among those over the age of 55, the approval rating was 59 percent.
Appleton said he’s been fielding excited calls since California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill into law Monday. He said advocates in Connecticut are motivated — including those with terminal illnesses themselves.
“For them it’s not a political question at all; it’s a very personal one,” he said.
The national Compassion & Choices organization said a “key victory” in California was the state medical association’s decision not to fight aid-in-dying legislation any longer.
The organization in May said it was “officially neutral” on the bill, making it the first state medical association to change its stance on the issue.
“The decision to participate in the End of Life Option Act is a very personal one between a doctor and their patient, which is why CMA has removed policy that outright objects to physicians aiding terminally ill patients in end of life options. We believe it is up to the individual physician and their patient to decide voluntarily whether the End of Life Option Act is something in which they want to engage. Protecting that physician-patient relationship is essential,” Dr. Luther F. Cobb, president of the California Medical Association, said in the release.
Continued opposition to state legislation from the Connecticut State Medical Society relies on the Hippocratic Oath, through which medical professionals swear not to give “deadly medicine” or suggest that it should be used.
Dr. Robert Russo, past president of the state medical society, has said in public testimony that there is a difference between deciding for oneself to end life support and deciding to end one’s life through the use of medication.
“When a life-sustaining treatment is declined, the patient dies primarily because of an underlying disease. In assisted suicide or life-ending treatment, death is actively induced by the taking of a lethal drug,” Russo said earlier this year.
The state medical society also cited the fear that doctors could end up issuing prescriptions in response to pressure from insurers and managed care providers to cut costs.
EDITOR’S NOTE: During the editing process we erroneously linked to the 2014 QPoll data instead of 2015 and used it for a previous version of the chart above. The data in the story and chart are now up to date.