Editorials

Doctors’ group goes neutral on assisted suicide

Debbie Ziegler, the mother of Brittany Maynard, displays a photo of her daughter while appearing before the California Senate Health Committee in March. She urged lawmakers to approve legislation allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients.
Debbie Ziegler, the mother of Brittany Maynard, displays a photo of her daughter while appearing before the California Senate Health Committee in March. She urged lawmakers to approve legislation allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients. The Associated Press

Ever so slowly, attitudes change for the better.

The politically influential California Medical Association announced Wednesday that it has changed a long-held position and dropped its opposition to pending “death-with-dignity” legislation, Senate Bill 128.

The association’s decision to take a neutral position on end-of-life legislation is a landmark. Although two California associations representing oncologists remain opposed to the bill, the California Medical Association is the first group of physicians of its type to remove its opposition from the fraught death-with-dignity issue. For that, it deserves credit and much thanks.

Dr. Luther F. Cobb, the association’s president, said in a statement that the decision to end one’s life “is a very personal” one between a doctor and patient, adding that: “Protecting that physician-patient relationship is essential.”

The legislation, by Sens. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and Bill Monning, D-Carmel, itself would be a landmark. If it is signed into law, California would join a handful of states that permit what many people view as the ultimate right, that being the right to choose to end one’s life when the pain and suffering of terminal illness becomes too great.

The Wolk-Monning bill, titled the End of Life Option Act, would allow a person diagnosed with six months or less to live to request a lethal dose of medication from a physician. The drugs would have to be self-administered, and doctors could opt out of participating in such decisions.

After learning of the association’s switch, Wolk told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member that the “removal of the (doctors’) opposition is a major breakthrough.” With the medical association becoming neutral, the bill, which faces a Senate vote in June, will gain additional support, including from Republicans, she believes.

“It speaks to the larger reality, which is that the attitudes about end of life are changing,” Wolk said. “This was a historic shift nationally for a medical association.”

The California Medical Association’s opposition to assisted suicide dates to 1987 when it stated that providing medicine, technique, advice or referrals necessary for a patient to end his or her life was unethical. In the 1990s, the association condemned voluntary active euthanasia by physicians as unethical and unacceptable, and opposed physician-assisted suicide clinics.

In the decades since, public acceptance of the concept has grown as baby boomers aged. Brittany Maynard brought new attention to the issue. The 29-year-old Bay Area woman, who had terminal cancer, moved to Oregon to use that state’s Death with Dignity Act, adopted 18 years ago. She died, as she planned, last November.

In California, too many family members have been arrested for simply carrying out their loved one’s wishes. With California’s leading association of physicians ending its opposition to the legislation, chances are greater that terminally ill Californians will gain the right to die on their own terms.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

  Comments