California Gov. Jerry Brown Signs ‘Right to Die’ Bill
California Governor Jerry Brown signed landmark legislation on Monday, allowing physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who wish to end their own lives.
“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” Brown wrote in a signing message. “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.”
The new law will permit California doctors to administer life-ending drugs to mentally competent adult patients who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and who are expected to live six months or less. Brown’s approval caps months of emotional debate over the issue, which deeply divided physicians, ethicists, religious leaders and lawmakers.
The bill was inspired by Brittany Maynard, a terminally ill 29-year-old California woman with brain cancer who moved to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s landmark Death With Dignity Act, after which the California bill was modeled. In a series of touching videos, Maynard pressed lawmakers to legally allow “death with dignity.”
“There is a difference between a person who is dying and a person who is suicidal,” Maynard explained. “I do not want to die, I am dying… To have control of my own mind, to go with dignity, is less terrifying. When I look at both options I have to die, I feel this is far more humane. Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice?”
Aid-in-dying advocates had hoped the publicity generated by Maynard’s case, as well as the May decision by the 40,000-member California Physicians Association to drop its opposition to assisted euthanasia, would turn the tide in favor of approval. But just as they played a key role in defeating a similar California “right to die” bill in 2007, religious groups, led by the Catholic church, temporarily defeated the measure earlier this year in the belief that allowing terminally ill patients to forever relieve their agony goes against the will of ‘God,’ the Abrahamic deity figure whose existence has never been proved.
Particularly strong opposition to SB128 came from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which despite being battered by a massive child sex abuse scandal involving hundreds of clergymen and victims and a record $660 million settlement, remains an influential force in local politics. The power of Los Angeles-area Catholics was a crucial factor in dealing a setback to the measure, as even some liberal Democrat lawmakers took a conservative stance against it.
Advocates of the ‘right to die’ bill hailed its passage.
“Brittany wanted this legislation in California so others would not have to go through what she went through,” Dan Diaz, Maynard’s husband, told the Los Angeles Times, adding that Brown had “granted one of her last wishes.”
“I’m overjoyed for all the terminally ill people in California, who can now relax knowing they finally have the choice of aid in dying as one of their end-of-life options!” Christy O’Donnell, a 47-year-old from Santa Clarita who is suffering from lung, brain, spine, rib and liver cancer, told CNN. “No more worrying that they will suffer great physical and emotional pain at the end of their life when they have already suffered painfully for so long as a result of their terminal illnesses.”
“I feel very humbled and gratified but it’s not an occasion of feeling joy over a bill that is signed,” Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), a former hospice worker who wrote the new law, told the Times. “I know the peace this will bring some families today and in the future.”
US Senator Dianne Feintstein (D-CA) said that Brown made the “absolutely correct” decision.
“I’ve seen firsthand the agony that accompanies prolonged illness, for both patients and loved ones, and this bill provides a compassionate, kind option,” Feinstein said in a statement.
Opponents lamented that Brown, a former Jesuit seminary student, signed into law a measure which directly contravenes Christian and other religious prohibitions of suicide.
“Life is a gift from God and it is not ours to do with as we please,” Patrick Michaels, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Mill Valley, told the Marin Independent Journal.
“The sense from here is that we are moving as a society in a direction where aspects of our world are becoming disposable,” Michaels added. “I know there are people in favor of this bill who have had tragic situations with their families and have suffered. [My opposition is] not about increasing suffering. It’s about how we deal with suffering. Do we see it as a part of our experience, or do we see it as dispensable?”
“This law stands in direct contradiction to providing compassionate, quality care for those facing a terminal illness,” the California Catholic Conference said in a statement.
Not all of the opposition to the measure was religious-based.
“Given the level of dysfunction and injustice that exists currently in our health care system—with many people without insurance still, with the very underfunded ability of people to have choices for treatment and care—adding this very potentially dangerous tool to the mix is of great concern to people with disabilities,” Marg Hall, an advocate with the Bay Area disability rights group Communities United in Defense of Olmstead, told NPR.
“Let’s call this for what it really is: It’s not death with dignity,” state Sen. Bob Huff (R-San Dimas) told the Times. “This is state-assisted death, physician-assisted death and relative-assisted death.”
The new California law will take effect 90 days after state lawmakers adjourn a special session on healthcare, which may not be until next year. California will join Oregon, Washington, Vermont and New Mexico in legalizing physician-assisted suicide. In Montana, a 2009 court ruling established that doctors are protected if they prescribe lethal medications as requested by terminally ill patients.
Internationally, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium allow some form of assisted suicide. In 2013, Belgian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to extend euthanasia rights to allow terminally ill children to ask for and receive permission to end their lives under certain circumstances.