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California doctors uneasy about prescribing lethal drugs

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Terry Petrovich asked her oncologist point blank: "Am I going to count on you to help me achieve a good death?"

To her relief, he told her he would have no problem prescribing a lethal dose of drugs under California's new law allowing such prescriptions for the terminally ill.

But many in California's medical community are grappling with the law that goes into effect June 9. Some physicians have told their patients they are not willing to play a role in intentionally ending a person's life.

Catholic hospitals will not provide the prescriptions because it goes against the church's stance on the issue, according to Alliance of Catholic Health Care, representing 48 facilities, 27 of which provide hospice services. The organization, though, cannot bar its affiliated physicians from talking about it, or referring patients to medical offices willing to prescribe such drugs.

How it plays out in trend-setting California, the country's most populous state, could determine whether the practice spreads nationwide. Some see providing the choice to the dying as a logical evolution in a medical care system advanced in helping people live longer but limited in preventing slow, painful deaths.

Petrovich was diagnosed in 2012 with stage 4 non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma that's spread to her bone marrow.

"I'm not suicidal by any means," said Petrovich, wearing a "Stupid Cancer Get Busy Living" T-shirt. "I want to keep hiking keep loving my dog, just keep living until I can't anymore — and then I want that option."

She fought for passage of the law after identifying with 29-year-old California resident Brittany Maynard, who was dying from brain cancer and moved to Oregon in 2014, the first state to make it legal, so she could take the drugs to end her suffering.

California has more safeguards than the other four states — Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana — where it is allowed. Still there are concerns it will lead to hasty decisions, misdiagnosis, and waning support for palliative care, in which dying people can be sedated to relieve suffering.

"I think everyone has that personal, ethical dilemma because we're not really taught in medical school to cause someone's death, and yet we certainly think society is moving toward wanting the option," said Dr. Daniel Mirda of the Association of Northern California Oncologists.


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