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California Medical Association takes 'neutral' stance on euthanasia

California State Sen. Isadore Hall, a member of the Senate Health Committee, looks at a photo of Brittany Maynard as lawmakers consider proposed legislation allowing physician-assisted suicide. Associated Press/Photo by Rich Pedroncelli

California Medical Association takes 'neutral' stance on euthanasia

The California Medical Association (CMA) officially adopted a neutral stance on physician-assisted suicide last week, ushering California closer to legalizing euthanasia.

California’s state legislature is considering a bill that would legalize the practice. SB128, also called the End of Life Option Act, would allow a physician to prescribe life-ending medication to an adult patient who is terminally ill. Since 1987, CMA has opposed any legislation legalizing assisted suicide. The organization said its policy reversal is “historic” and stems from the personal nature of end-of-life care decisions.

“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,” said CMA President Dr. Luther F. Cobb.

But the American Academy of Medical Ethics (AAME) denounced CMA’s policy shift and said the decision has angered many CMA members who also are AAME members. AAME’s code of ethics holds that euthanasia conflicts with the physician’s role as healer.

“Physician-assisted suicide is not about giving patients the right to die, but about giving doctors the right to kill,” said AAME Executive Director David Stevens. “Physician-assisted suicide is just wrong. Taking this step only further de-professionalizes the practice of medicine, and it doesn’t protect our patients.”

Compassion & Choices, the pro-assisted suicide organization that helped publicize Brittany Maynard’s death last year, applauded CMA’s decision. The organization filed suit in the California Superior Court in San Diego County May 15 arguing the state’s constitution and existing laws allow physician-assisted suicide. It represents three Californians who want to die: Elizabeth Wallner suffers from stage IV colon cancer; Wolf Breiman suffers terminally from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the white blood cells; and Christy O’Donnell recently received a six-month prognosis for her lung cancer.

“As Brittany Maynard recognized, these people desperately need the option of medical aid in dying so they can die painlessly, peacefully in their sleep—and they need it now—before it’s too late,” said Kevin Díaz, Compassion & Choices national director of legal advocacy.

If SB128 passes the state Senate before the June 5 deadline, it faces a Sept. 11 deadline in the state Assembly. Because the bill likely will pass too late for O’Donnell, Compassion & Choices is requesting an expedited review for its lawsuit.

“I spend an inordinate amount of time being afraid of the pain that I’m going to endure,” O’Donnell said in a YouTube video appeal for aid-in-dying medication. “All of that time that my mind spends thinking about that, I am not living. I don’t want to die [but] I should be able to get a prescription, have that peace, and never think about it ‘til the day I’m ready to die.”

But O’Donnell—a former Los Angeles Police Department sergeant, Republican civil rights attorney, and Christian—holds a position different from many who share her faith. In a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, 67 percent of Protestant evangelicals said they disapprove of physician-assisted suicide.

Theologian and founder John Piper wrote before Maynard’s death that the right to die rests in God’s hands alone, especially for the Christian. “Life and death are not our private concern. They are not our choice,” Piper writes. “He bought us. He owns us. We live and we die to Him—in reliance on Him, in accordance with His will, for His glory.”

Rather than physician-assisted suicide, AAME calls for training more physicians in palliative care, modifying laws to allow better pain and symptom control, improving treatment for depression, and promoting hospice care. The organization also encourages communities to support patients and families facing end-of-life care.

“This decision by the California Medical Association to take a neutral stand is like releasing a cobra in your house to eliminate your rat problem,” Stevens said. “Yes, it is a ‘solution,’ but it is a solution that is much more dangerous than the problem needing to be solved.”

Courtney Crandell Courtney is a former WORLD correspondent.

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