On Thursday 9 June 2016, California introduced an assisted dying law, allowing terminally ill, mentally competent adults the right to request life-ending medication from their doctor. This law will no doubt bring immeasurable comfort to thousands of dying people who, having had personal autonomy throughout their life, will finally have the fundamental rights of choice and control over their death.
If you believe the views of some opponents to assisted dying, however, a very different picture emerges. If their views are to be believed, by the weekend California will have become a quasi-death cult where people will eschew life for death.
Picture this, their arguments suggest: a state where thousands of disabled people will suddenly feel their lives are not worth living; where people will start to view their doctors as killers and no longer seek their help for pain or disease; where doctors, nurses and other clinicians will cease trying to help dying people, thinking it would just be easier to let them die by their own hand.
You may think that this is a rather farcical interpretation of what opponents' concerns about assisted dying suggest, but in fact this is the logical conclusion to their misinformed, distorted arguments. Opponents say that assisted dying will fundamentally change society's view on life and death, create a climate where disabled people feel they should die, dangerously change the relationship between doctors and patients and lead to assisted dying being seen by doctors as preferable to treatment.
This is nonsense, of course, and California's legalisation will prove it. We will see 'live', as it were, that Californian society will remain largely unchanged, people will still trust their doctors to care for them, dying people will still want to live as full lives as they wish and disabled people will not suddenly feel that their lives are no longer worth living. It would simply mean that terminally ill Californians can take control of their imminent deaths, whilst many more will simply be comforted by knowing such an option was available.
This has already been proven many times over, with Oregon having had an assisted dying law in place for 19 years without any of the above scare stories materialising. But Oregon is a small state; so apparently, to opponents at least, it is irrelevant. In contrast California is a large, populous, diverse state that looks and feels more like the UK than Oregon does. Thirty-eight million Californians and 50 million Americans in total, across five states, are numbers the UK cannot ignore.
California also shows that while change is inevitable, it may not come overnight. Many attempts were made to change the law before reform actually occurred. It took the voice of 29 year old Brittany Maynard, a young, affable woman with terminal brain cancer whose story struck home for many Californians, before people where mobilised to action and put pressure on their politicians. Change became so inevitable that the Californian Medical Association dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted dying and the Governor of California Jerry Brown, a Catholic, signed it into law without equivocation.
California will not stop opponents, however, who will find ever more spurious reasons to oppose it. They do not seem particularly troubled by being wrong or out of touch, the British Medical Association included. Earlier this week polling showed that the BMA's opposition to assisted dying is only supported by 7% of the public, with 84% thinking it should change. It is a position the BMA has arrived at without ever having surveyed the members it claims to represent (something that 54% of the public believe would better inform debate and that the Australian Medical Association is currently doing). Despite neither accurately representing the public nor its members, The BMA will continue to act as if it does, for the immediate future at least. "Brass neck" doesn't do it justice.
Change will come, California proves that. It's just a matter of when and who will be the last opponent standing.
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