California Becomes 5th State with Right-to-Die Legislation

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October 6, 2015; CNN

This past Monday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the End of Life Option Act, which will allow doctors to prescribe terminally ill patients medication that will allow them to end their lives. Despite protests and petitions, California became the fifth state to legalize right-to-die legislation, behind Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Vermont.

Before a patient can be prescribed the medication, the bill specifies that certain criteria must be met. For example, the patient must be determined by two doctors to be terminally ill with six months or fewer to live, deemed mentally competent, and able to take the medication by themselves. The patient must also have a private meeting with a doctor to ensure the decision is being made independently.

California has had a rocky history with right-to-die legislation—most recently, benching a “death with dignity” bill that would have similarly legalized physician-assisted suicide. The decision was strongly supported by parishioners and local officials of the Catholic Church.

“For the Catholic community here in Los Angeles, this is not a ‘Catholic’ issue or a question of our doctrine or ethics,” said Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez said in a statement after the vote back in July. “For us, the issue of physician-assisted suicide involves fundamental questions of human dignity and social justice.”

Similarly, much of the backlash against still stems from a moral and religious prejudice against assisted suicide. Governor Brown indicated that he deeply considered the ramifications of this bill, including both the moral and religious consequences.

“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” wrote Brown, who is also a former Roman Catholic seminary student. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

Nonprofit advocacy group Californians Against Assisted Suicide spoke out against Brown’s reasons for signing the bill, indicating that his experience as a governor would possibly be very different from the average Californian in the situation. “As someone of wealth and access to the world’s best medical care and doctors, the governor’s background is very different than that of millions of Californians living in health care poverty without that same access,” said the coalition in a statement. “These are the people and families potentially hurt by giving doctors the power to prescribe lethal overdoses to patients.”

Others also countered the humanity of physician-assisted suicide in criticizing the law. “One of the privileges of being in the pastorate is you get to be with people in these kinds of enormous critical passages,” said Rev. Paul Mowry of the Sausalito Presbyterian Church. “For someone to be completely drugged up and unconscious while their body just runs out doesn’t make sense to me.”

Still others question the integrity of the law itself and whether the criteria would truly prevent abuse. Marilyn Golden from the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund says the law’s criteria do not require a witness to the death to ensure no abuse is taking place.

Yet, supporters of the law believe renewed humanity for the terminally ill is the very result of passing such legislation. Perhaps one of the most influential people supporting physician-assisted suicide was Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer. Maynard resided in California but moved to Oregon so she could employ the state’s Death with Dignity Law. She used medication to end her life last November. In her memory, her friends and family have championed the movement in California to pass right-to-die legislation.

“I’ve seen firsthand the agony that accompanies prolonged illness, for both patients and loved ones, and this bill provides a compassionate, kind option,” said Senator Diane Feinstein. Christy O’Donnell, a 47-year-old single mother of Santa Clarita who has cancers of the lung, brain, rib, and liver, is overjoyed that she has the option. Elizabeth Walker from Sacramento, who has stage 4 colon cancer, says though she does not want to die, having the option now is “powerful.”—Shafaq Hasan