California Becomes the Fifth State with a Right to Die

Tuesday, October 06, 2015
Governor Jerry Brown

Hopefully, California will do a better job regulating assisted suicide than it has medical marijuana.

On Monday, Governor Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, signed the End of Life Option Act, which lets terminally-ill patients ask for drugs to end their lives, and allows doctors and others to accommodate them. It is modeled on a 1997 Oregon law that has quietly worked as intended.

But California has already shown how easy it is to muck up something like medical marijuana so badly that federal law enforcement feels obliged to join in the chaos, while Arizona and other states have managed to efficiently regulate it. The law takes effect next year.

Brown remained noncommittal about the issue until two days before the deadline to approve or veto the legislation. But after listening to “varied, contradictory and nuanced positions,” the 77-year-old governor said in a signing statement (pdf), “In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death.”

He opted for dignity. “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 in the bill. And I wouldn't deny that right to others.”

Those options are afforded to people who have been diagnosed with less than six months to live by two doctors. The patient must make a personal written request and two oral requests. Patients must be able to make decisions for themselves and the authority cannot be transferred to a third party. 

Voters rejected assisted suicide in 1992, and bills supporting it failed each year from 2005 to 2007. A bill was bottled up in committee this year amid strong opposition led by the Catholic Church. But a special session called to consider other matters took up the bill and Democrats, who control both houses of the legislature, routed it through friendlier, reconstituted committees. The Assembly approved it 44-35 and the Senate 23-15, mostly along party lines.

A Field Poll released Monday showed Californians favored the legislation 65%-27%.

California joins Oregon, Washington and Vermont as states where the legislature established the right to die, while the courts made it legal in Montana. Associated Press said at least two dozen states rejected assisted suicide legislation this year.

Assisted suicide received a lot of attention when 29-year-old former Bay Area resident Brittany Maynard video blogged her experience as she prepared to take her life in Portland, Oregon. Maynard, who suffered from brain cancer, made an impassioned 35-minute phone appeal to Governor Brown in support of the legislation. The governor cited her in his signing statement.

As of January 1, 752 people had used Oregon's law in 17 years, out of the 1,173 who requested prescriptions for a fatal dose of drugs. An Assembly committee staff analysis of California's law projected 350 participants a year.

The law references throughout the use of an “aid-in-dying drug” but does not specify anything by name. Presumably, whatever drug or combination of drugs is used will be less controversial than the drug proposals that court's in California have regularly rejected as cruel and unusual for the carrying out of prison death sentences.

‒Ken Broder


To Learn More:  

Right to Die: California Gov. Jerry Brown Signs Law (by Lisa M. Krieger, Jessica Calefati and Tracy Seipel, San Jose Mercury News)

Gov. Brown Signs Controversial Assisted-Suicide Bill (by Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times)

California Governor Signs Assisted Suicide Bill Into Law (by Ian Lovett and Richard Pérez-Peña, New York Times)

Gov. Brown Signs Right-to-Die Legislation; California Now 5th State to Allow Terminally-Ill Patients to Legally End Their Lives (by Judy Lin, Associated Press)

Despite Strong State Support, Right-to-Die Bill Can’t Get Out of Assembly Committee (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Signing Message (Governor Jerry Brown) (pdf)

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