Health

Calif. Medical Association drops opposition to assisted suicide

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Reversing a nearly 30-year old policy, the California Medical Association is no longer taking a position in opposition to physician-assisted suicide, the organization announced Wednesday. The Association says it is now neutral on legislation that would legalize the practice in the state.

Advocates for the bill, SB 128 (titled the End of Life Option Act), hailed the Association's shift as a "major milestone." Opponents, including some medical associations, said the change will not affect their position.

Here is the full statement from California Medical Association President Dr. Luther Cobb:

"As physicians, we want to provide the best care possible for our patients. However, despite the remarkable medical breakthroughs we’ve made and the world-class hospice or palliative care we can provide, it isn’t always enough. 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."

The Association's 40-member board of trustees voted in favor of the policy change at its April board meeting, said spokeswoman Molly Weedn. She said it was the culmination of a process that began more than 10 years ago.

"There's been a bit of a shift in the dialogue" about the issue among doctors over the past decade, she said, with greater emphasis put on palliative and hospice care, and end-of-life options. 

The key moment for the Association came when SB 128's authors agreed to clarify that doctors' participation in assisted suicide would be voluntary, Weedn noted.

The Association's change in policy "is a major milestone because its prior opposition to this legitimate medical practice doomed previous bills," said Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee in a statement. Compassion & Choices is the main group behind SB 128.

"We are seeing an enormous shift among medical organizations that is more reflective of the opinion of practicing physicians," Lee added. "This shift helps advance medical aid-in-dying legislation in California and throughout the nation."

Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a coalition of medical, disability rights and religious groups, said it remains "steadfast in its opposition" to SB 128. It noted in a statement that the Oregon Medical Association took a neutral position on that state's 1994 ballot measure that legalized assisted suicide. 

"However in 1997, the Oregon Medical Association switched back to oppose and joined the campaign to overturn that recently passed Oregon law," the statement added.