Health

Will it matter if hospitals opt out of California's assisted suicide law?

Supporters of a measure to allow the terminally ill to end their own life march at the Capitol while calling on California Gov. Jerry Brown to sign the bill Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in Sacramento, Calif.
Supporters of a measure to allow the terminally ill to end their own life march at the Capitol while calling on California Gov. Jerry Brown to sign the bill Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, in Sacramento, Calif.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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Huntington Hospital in Pasadena is considering joining the state's Catholic hospitals in opting out of participating in the physician-assisted suicide law that takes effect on June 9. But it's unclear that such a move would have much practical effect.

Huntington, a non-religious facility, "respects the rights of patients and their families to make decisions regarding end-of-life care," hospital spokeswoman Eileen Neuwirth said in a statement. "We also respect the rights of independent physicians and pharmacists to decide whether they will participate in the process. While a final decision has not been made, we are currently evaluating whether the inpatient setting is the appropriate location for end-of-life care to be delivered."

"In order to maintain the integrity of our hospital's decision making process, discussions during interim steps are not publicly disclosed," she said. "A final decision on this issue will be made by our board of directors at a later date."

The board's next scheduled meeting is May 26.

The new California law will give some terminally ill patients the ability to get a doctor's prescription for lethal medication. One key supporter of the law expressed doubt that hospitals opting out will make much of a difference. 

"One of the reasons people request aid in dying is so they can die at home, so they don’t have to die in a hospital," said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, the main advocacy group that lobbied for the law. 

Coombs Lee, an attorney and nurse practitioner, co-authored Oregon's "Death with Dignity Act," which took effect in 1998. 

In that state, too, some hospitals and other health facilities chose not to participate she said. Even so, said Coombs Lee, that’s had little if any impact on the law’s implementation in Oregon, because by and large people have opted to die at home. 

Still, Californians should discuss all end-of-life options with their doctors and find out whether their provider or hospital is opting out of the law, she said.  If so, those who want lethal medication will need a referral to a doctor willing to help them.