Saturday, September 12, 2015

Assisted-Suicide Legislation Fails In Britain But Passes In California


There are a lot of routine questions you get asked-- sometimes over and over and over-- by hospital staff. When I first started going to City of Hope to get treated for cancer, one of the questions they asked everyone every time you walked into an office is if you had been to West Africa in the last couple of months. I said "no" every time and so did everyone else. Once I told the sleepy clerk I had been in Mali and he ignored me. (I had been there a couple of years earlier, pre-whatever the disease is they were worried about; funny that I can't even remember now.) 

Another question they would ask, although in a more serious medical way, when they took your vital signs, is if you had thoughts of suicide. I always said no. I never had.

Eventually-- as the chemo, which is cumulative in effect, started taking over-- I did sometimes want to talk with someone, like Roland or Digby or my sister, if it was worth it. Was going through the treatment the right decision? I didn't know it would be so bad, so painful, so debilitating. Would I ever get better? If I did, would my life me so impaired that it wouldn't be worth living? The neuropathy, nerve damage and a side effect of Velcade, one of the chemo drugs, sometimes never goes away. Would it be worth living? Sometimes I wasn't sure-- like when I went blind one day. That was temporary, but I had no way of knowing that at the time. Or when I couldn't walk-- also temporary, but again, who knew? I felt I had had a rich, wonderful, blessed and joyful, full life. Did I need to torture myself with barbaric treatments that could leave me a wreck?

A lot of the time I was on heavy drugs and could barely think straight. And chemo-brain is... very real, real enough so that you don't know what is real and what you imagined. Did Michael come visit me in the hospital, or did I just dream it? How would I know without embarrassing us both by asking him?

I'm glad I didn't go down a path that led to suicide. The treatment was the right thing -- even though the neuropathy is still with me and I have no way of knowing what the future holds. But while I was questioning my decisions, I found out that gigantic numbers of our parents do opt to end it on their own terms. I never knew that my sisters helped our mother escape the torment of terminal cancer. And when I told one of my best friends, he told me that he had done the same thing for his mom, and that it isn't as uncommon as I imagined.

The big news out of Britain yesterday was awesome. Labour had elected Jeremy Corbyn leader-- the furthest of the four candidates from centrist shill Tony Blair. But for many Britons there was much more profound news-- and it was really bad. The House of Commons had voted 330-118 against right-to-die legislation meant to allow some terminally ill adults to end their lives with medical supervision. 74% of MPs voted against this bill, compared with 72% back in 1997.
Under the proposals, people with fewer than six months to live could have been prescribed a lethal dose of drugs, which they had to be able to take themselves. Two doctors and a High Court judge would have needed to approve each case.
Although the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said the bill would mean that suicide was "actively supported" instead of being viewed as a tragedy, one of his predecessors, George Carey, backed assisted dying, saying that there's nothing dignified about experiencing pain at its most awful. And while the Royal College of Nursing is neutral on the issue, the British Medical Association, the doctors' union, opposes all forms of assisted dying. PM David Cameron opposed the bill. Polling, though, shows that as many as 82% of Britons support assisted dying. 

The news on this front was much better from California, where late Friday night the state legislature passed a bill legalizing medically assisted suicide. If Governor Brown signs the bill, physicians will be allowed to prescribe life-ending drugs to Californians diagnosed as having less than six months to live. Co-author Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis): "Californians want us, the Legislature, to act to eliminate the needless pain and prolonged suffering of those who are dying." It passed 23-14, only one Democrat voting with the Republicans against it.
Four states-- Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont-- already allow physicians to prescribe life-ending medication to some patients... Brown has given little indication of his intentions.

The California bill is modeled on the law in Oregon, with several notable changes. The California law would expire after 10 years and have to be reapproved, and doctors would have to consult in private with the patient desiring to die, as part of an effort to ensure that no one would be coerced to end his or her life-- a primary concern for opponents of the law.

Leaders of the “death with dignity” movement said they hoped the passage of the California law could be a turning point.

“It allows for individual liberty and freedom, freedom of choice,” said Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco who compared the issue to gay marriage.

Since Oregon approved the country’s first assisted-suicide law in 1997, supporters have struggled to expand their reach, amid opposition from religious groups, some medical organizations and lawmakers whose skepticism crosses party lines.

“I’m not going to push the old or the weak out of this world,” Senator Ted Gaines, a Republican, said on the floor. “I think that could be the unintended consequence of this legislation.”

...[B]ackers of the bill have discussed bringing the issue to the voters through a ballot measure if Mr. Brown vetoes it. A Gallup poll this year found that nearly 70 percent of Americans support physician-assisted suicide, up 10 percentage points from last year.

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