Adventist Health, a large medical system with facilities spanning three of the U.S. states that authorize medical aid in dying – Oregon, Washington and California – recently lifted their 20-year ban on the practice, a great victory for Compassion & Choices, advocates for patient autonomy and terminally ill adults served by Adventist physicians.
Several factors contributed to this exciting shift, including enactment of California’s End of Life Option Act in June, which greatly increased the amount of internal pressure from doctors willing to participate and external pressure from patients who felt they might want the option for themselves, compelling Adventist to revisit their policy. “We had always encouraged patients that were within their systems to write letters and ask questions of their doctors,” says Compassion & Choices California State Director Matt Whitaker. “So they had to seriously reconsider what they had decided to do historically.”
Adventist’s new position is to have no stance on the issue, considering this option to lie within the sacred and private space of the patient-physician relationship, which they did not want to hinder. “They saw that this interference in the process was actually doing just that, which is why they reconsidered,” explains Whitaker. “So their policy now is that they will neither compel a physician to participate or not participate. It is solely up to that individual physician and that individual patient/physician relationship.”
Previously physicians employed by Adventist Health, a nonprofit organization run by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, could be fired under breach of contract for writing a medical aid-in-dying prescription.
Because of its long-standing ban and religious affiliation, a turnaround for Adventist was particularly surprising. “I think what this shows is just how powerful individual advocates can be,” says Whitaker. “Even in an organization where it didn’t seem possible, it worked. So if a system like this can change their policy, I think it’s a great example for all other health systems, and a great example for us of just how powerful going out there and doing education and getting people to ask the right questions can be. Inertia is a hard thing to overcome, and many of these systems have not changed for decades. Then one person will come along who writes the right letter that ends up on the right desk at the right moment, and everything changes for tens of thousands of people immediately. It’s pretty incredible.”
Compassion & Choices is now launching a series of campaigns to bring about similar reversals within other health systems that have prohibited their physicians from participating in medical aid in dying. The goal is to empower members of the community who are served by these hospitals with ways to engage and make their voices heard, and enact change. You could be the voice that makes all the difference; visit our California page to learn how to get involved!