California governor signs assisted suicide bill

© Mike Blake
In a controversial move, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a measure that will allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients upon their request. The bill’s detractors were religious- and disability-rights groups.

In a statement on Monday, Brown, a Democrat, said it was not an ordinary bill because it dealt with “life and death,” as well as whether the state should continue to “make it a crime for a dying person to end their own life no matter how great their pain or suffering.”

The law limits assisted death to patients who are predicted to die within six months, and it requires approval from multiple physicians.

“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” said Brown, a Catholic and former Jesuit 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."

Brown said he had consulted with a Catholic bishop, two of his own doctors, former classmates and friends who took “varied, contradictory and nuanced positions.

The governor said he had read the letters of support and dissent for the bill, along with the “heartfelt pleas” from Brittany Maynard’s family. Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman with terminal brain cancer, moved to Oregon to legally end her life. She had urged lawmakers to pass the legislation before she died. A week before her death, she lobbied Brown for his support during a telephone conversation.

The right-to-die measure was approved by the California Assembly on September 9, with the Senate passing the bill in a 23-14 vote on September 12. Most Republican lawmakers opposed the bill on moral grounds, joined by some Democrats who cited examples of family members who, given months to live, went on to live for years.

The new law will take effect 90 days after lawmakers finish their special session on healthcare, which is likely to occur in January.

The bill’s detractors say the legislation requires more work. They argue there is no provision for preventing relatives from forcing patients to end their lives prematurely, and there are also concerns the measure could pose dangers to vulnerable people and those with disabilities.

Opponents also fear the law will invite insurance companies to take advantage of poor patients by offering to pay for the cost of life-ending drugs ‒ but not for the expensive treatments that could their save lives.

"There is a deadly mix when you combine our broken healthcare system with assisted suicide, which immediately becomes the cheapest treatment," Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Berkeley, told Reuters. "The so-called protections written into the bill really amount to very little."

But for many Californians advocating for the measure, they just wanted their family members to die with dignity and greater comfort.

"My daughter did not die in vain," Dr. Robert Olvera, an advocate for the measure whose daughter succumbed to leukemia in 2014, told Reuters. "This is the option she wanted to end her suffering."

The new law is modeled after Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which passed in 1994. It makes California the fifth state to allow so-called assisted suicide, following Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont.

The measure would sunset in 10 years, giving lawmakers a chance to review its merits and decide whether to grant an extension.

In May, the bill was endorsed by the California Medical Association, which abandoned its 30-year opposition to physician-assisted suicide, thus removing a major obstacle to passing the legislation. It marked the first time a state medical association has supported a right-to-die measure.

“I am confident that the governor will listen to the 75 percent of Californians who do support this option, that the governor will take into consideration that this is an option for an individual voluntarily to pursue,” Maynard’s husband, Dan Diaz, said, as cited by the Los Angeles Times. “Ethically this decision belongs with the individual working with his physician. I am hopeful.”

The Sacramento Bee said the bill’s passage followed decades of failed efforts by activists and lawmakers in the legislature and at the ballot box. In 1992, voters rejected a physician-assisted death measure but “a majority of Californians have shown support for assisted death in more recent years.”