Alan and Margaret Purdy of San Marcos. Alan, 88, allegedly sat by the bedside… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
With Californians facing decisions on 11 ballot measures Tuesday, which range from the straightforward (doing away with the death penalty under Proposition 34) to the annoyingly arcane (doing whatever Proposition 31 would do), it's probably just as well we don't have another hot-button social issue to agonize over. But Massachusetts is showing why we should in the near future.
Mitt Romney's home state is confronting Question 2, a ballot measure to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Two states, Oregon and Washington, have already passed voter initiatives approving the practice, and a third, Montana, legalized it by court decision. It's not at all clear how California voters would respond if confronted with the question, but tragic cases like that of Alan Purdy of San Marcos point up the need for them to weigh in.
Purdy, 88, allegedly sat by the bedside of his long-suffering wife as she took an overdose of sleeping pills and put a plastic bag over her head. Margaret Purdy, 84, was in severe pain from a wide variety of ailments. Purdy admitted that he didn't try to stop her. "Yes, I sat beside her as she died," he told The Times. "I didn't want her to feel abandoned. I wanted her to know that I loved her."
Setting aside whether Margaret Purdy's end could have been delivered more painlessly and humanely by a physician than a plastic bag, there is the question of whether Alan Purdy committed a crime -- a 19th century law makes it a felony to aid, advise or encourage someone to commit suicide. In August, after prolonging Purdy's suffering by making him wait months to find out whether he would go to jail, the San Diego County district attorney's office decided not to press charges.
As Massachusetts voters are learning, there are a host of wrenching moral choices involved in the issue of assisted suicide. The idea of letting terminally ill people decide for themselves whether they want to end their pain rather than waiting for nature to take its course has tremendous appeal. But opponents point out that this population is also deeply susceptible to manipulation, not only by family members who may want to be rid of an ailing relative who's dying too slowly to suit them but by health insurers focused on trimming end-of-life expenses. But just because an issue is hard doesn't mean it can't be resolved, and the state of California's legal position on the issue shouldn't be dictated by 19th century sensibilities.
Bills have been floated repeatedly in the Legislature to legalize assisted suicide, but none has gotten far, mostly because Sacramento is not a bastion of outstanding political courage. In Oregon and Washington state, meanwhile, hundreds of suffering people have been allowed to die on their own terms, with few reports of manipulation or other problems. If Question 2 passes in Massachusetts, it could encourage the spread of similar measures in other states; this one should be next.
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